Xi ‘An

Wow, I’m really behind getting down all my sights & dumping photos off my camera.  It’s so hard to make myself stop & record what I’m seeing & doing when I’d rather be seeing & doing some more!

Banpo Museum.  We saw the site of a Neolithic village, complete with skeletons & artifacts.   It was pretty interesting & hard to believe that those were real people  5000 to 4000 B.C. 

Terra Cotta Warrior Museum in Xi’An.  I knew about the sight, & was looking forward to it, but nothing could prepare me for the scale.  There are 3 excavated or partially excavated pits & a few completely unexcavated ones.  Pit No. 1 by itself is the size of about three football fields put together.  Each one of those soldiers is unique, and it’s assumed that each looks like a real soldier of Emporer Qin’s in 246 BC.  It’s overwhelming when you keep going through & it goes on and on and on and on.  But it’s mindblowing when you look at a face & realize that a man that really looked like that lived 6000 years ago & had a wife & kids & planted a garden & played with the dog…  They were real people.

I took a picture of a nice Communist soldier at the museum.  He looked like a boy.  They don’t smile, but they are very accommodating.  We see them out sightseeing in packs as well, & in those situations there are just like regular guys.  Most of them look like children to me.  Also, I felt like quite a celebrity at the terra cotta soldier museum.  A group of Korean men all wanted their picture made with me, and one asked for my number.  It was very flattering.  The men were funny & charming.  I think it was the red hair – that’s what someone told me anyway.

You can see the Emporer’s tomb (a buried pyramid) from the museum site, but the government will not excavate it because historical documents record that he filled a mote and tributaries with mercury to represent water.  And there are high mercury contents in the soil there.  So I guess it’s good that they don’t disturb that.

Another thing we saw in Xi’An is the tomb of the one of the princesses of China.  Princess Yongtai.  She was the daughter (maybe granddaughter) of the only Empress China ever had.  When I saw we saw the tomb, I mean we went into the tomb!  A real pyramid, and we got to go underground & walk down the path with 1300 year old frescos on the wall that you could reach out & touch (but I didn’t).  We walked right up to her actual tomb with her actual body inside (they haven’t opened it).  They won’t even let you in the tombs in Egypt anymore.  I doubt this particular opportunity will exist for very much longer here.  Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take any pictures in there – even without a flash.  It was killing me.  Wallace would have seriously dug it.  I really wanted to do a rubbing of the tomb, but there were bars around it, & even though it would be easy to put your hand through the bar that was really only symbolically there to keep people away, I decided that touching a national treasure in a Communist country is probably a bad idea.

We’ve been to several museums with lots of amazingly old artifacts.  Honestly, after a while it’s hard to focus on how special each item is.

After the tomb we ate at a small rural restaurant with very simple country food.  The noodles were very good, & again the vegetables were so fresh.  Outside the museum there were women selling their handmade baby items with the symbols of the 5 poisons to protect.  There are always people selling things everywhere, but some of them make me want to buy more than others.  These two little grandmothers were very likable.

Yesterday we went to the school in Xi’An.  There was a mix-up, & I ended up observing a class of elementary school children.  They were so fun & funny.  Two little girls, Doris & Sandy, used my phrasebook to help me with my Chinese.  I got to talk to several teachers, & it was great.  The two teachers I observed teaching were very interactive & fun & used really modern teaching methods.  It was another eye-opener.

But mostly, I love Xi’An itself.  I love the energy there.  I love the people there.  I love the sites & sounds & foods.   There is a merchant district that filled with booth after booth of people selling things – some good, some junk, but all overpriced if you are silly enough to pay what they ask.  Lady! Lady!  Hello!  I make you good price!  I got quite good at playing the game with them & walked away feeling very satisfied most of the time.  It’s been recommended that you start by offering half.  I frequently got what I wanted for a quarter of what they started with.  It can be addictive.  It is very exhausting.  After the first day I didn’t go back again until the last night.  I finally decided that I enjoyed a purchase more if I sort of liked the person I was buying from.  After that, I enjoyed my experience more & cut down my bartering time.  I didn’t have to walk away from many possible purchases.  Not surprisingly, some of the phrases I know the best are “Bu Shao!  Xia Xien” (I don’t want it! Thank you!) and “Duo shao quien” (how much) and “Bu shi! Giao!”  (No!  Expensive)  “Shi.  Shi.” (yes yes) and “Xia Xian” (thank you).

Catherine knows all of the local places & took a small group of us out one night to dinner.  All the food in Xi’An is really really fresh.  They have the best tasting vegetables.  I have liked everything I have eaten here except when I’ve gone to the touristy places & eaten the same things they offer over at Hunaan Place in Little Rock.  We had spicy roasted eggplant, spinach with garlic shoots, fried bean curd in chili sauce, & some kind of fresh water fish.  She turned us on to the local beer, which is very light & refreshing in that hot climate, & very low in alcohol, so we could drink it without worry.

We found a supermarket, & Susie & I got a case of water.  After that we went there almost every night & bought a couple of beers & local snacks.  I started trying a different kind of ice cream every night.  One of my favorites is milk with mung bean.  There is also a kind of roasted bean that is sort of like a nut that is very good, & it goes well with beer.

My favorite meal was from a place in the Muslim district.   The first night we found the place Susie & I were with a pretty tame crowd, & many of the people didn’t really enjoy how very spicy the food is.  It was sort of confusing.  This place was totally authentic – no English, no English on the menu, no pictures.  It was hard to figure out how it worked, but we sort of did.  You picked out your vegetables on the skewers.  They cooked them on the open air grill outside & brought them to you.  Everything was heavily seasoned with curry & cayenne pepper & cumin & garlic & who knows what else.  HOT!  Then they came around with trays of meat on skewers yelling out what they had, & you raised your fingers for how many you wanted.  Fortunately all the “regular” meats were small cuts & the organ meats were large, so it was pretty easy to tell you were getting something you wanted.  The energy in the place is so HIGH!  It’s like a crazy party.

The next night I took a group of about 8 really fun adventurous types out to the same place.  The sort of floor manager guy from the night before remembered me.  He spoke just enough broken English & I spoke just enough broken Chinese that we got it figured out.  He was very gracious & took care of our table.  I asked him to pick out some vegetables for us & told him what kind of meats we wanted & how many of those flat breads to bring us.  Between the two of us, we managed to feed the table a feast that everyone really liked.  Even people who said “I just want chicken” started wolfing it down.  We ate 4 whole carps, a stack of veggies, & a mountain of lamb, chicken, & beef.  I even tried beef tripe, & it was good!  The people I took said it was their very favorite meal of the trip.  My new friend Wu Tsao Tsen said he would see me again tomorrow, but it was our last night in Xi’An.  I had my picture made with him before I left.

After the huge dinner, I peeled off with a couple of people from the larger group & we went to the square.  Around sundown they play music, & there is a sort of choreographed fountain display.  It’s quiet.  There are many grandparents with their grandchildren.  People are just enjoying their family & friends.  We grabbed a beer from the local vender & copped squat on the grass & sat there soaking in the happy positive energy from the place.  One very nice older gentleman sat near us & kind of attended us.  We played with his granddaughter & met his wife.  They were lovely.  All around the city there are people, usually older people, that ask for your empty bottles to collect the recycling deposit.  One older woman sat & smiled & communicated as well as she could while we finished our beer – which took a long time – so she could have the bottles.  It wasn’t desperation that kept her there.  It’s more like it was patience.  The evening was beautiful.  The breeze was blowing.  A 700 year old temple sat in the background.  Children played all around.  And she just waited there & smiled while we sipped our beers & then thanked us when we gave her our bottles.  I took pictures of all those lovely people.  People in China are not just polite.  There are friendly & open.  I never would have expected it.  I did not want to leave Xi’An this morning. 

Today we arrived in Ku Ming.  We are very close to the Vietnam border.  This area is not used to white tourists.  There are a lot more stares.  We went to a museum here, but again it all starts to run together.  Also, I seem to have gotten badly dehydrated.  I drink water constantly, but my body quit absorbing it.  I had to find a drink mix with some electrolytes in it & eat some salty snacks.  I felt better by this evening, but I was pretty stupid-headed this afternoon.  Ku Ming is not as easy to navigate, & I can’t imagine that I will love this place as much as Xi’An, but it’s neat to be in an area that is not at all tourist driven.  Things are reeeeeeeeeeeally cheap.  It’s a small town – only 6 million people.  Also, the weather is much nicer here so far.  It’s significantly cooler, not as humid, & there is usually a breeze.

There is virtually no crime here… which is a good thing because I got lost as a goose tonight.  Catherine, Susie, Kathy, & I set out to find an out of the way restaurant, which we did.  On the way we looked at the sights, stopped & bought some fruit, & saw a Wal-Mart.  At dinner we had a cucumber, cilantro, vinegar-chili salad, a tofu dish, fried lotus plant, a whole fish in some kind of sweet red sauce – this fish was carved in the most intricate pattern – all very good.  After dinner Kathy & I thought it would be fun to look around the Chinese Wal-Mart.  It was pretty weird.  We bought some stuff, mostly looked around. 

When we left it was closing time.  We got outside & several of the exits from the outside mall to the street were gated off.  We walked round & round & finally got to the street.  By this time we were all turned around & it was pouring rain.   There is construction all around the hotel, so that means even if/when we figured out where our hotel was, it wasn’t a straight shot.  I stuck a bandana on my head, Kathy stuck a plastic sack on her head.  We stopped & asked a couple of young girls in the pharmacy.  Remember, unlike Beijing where most people spoke quite a bit of English, or Xi’An where a lot of people spoke some English, most people in Ku Ming speak no English.  I have a few phrases, a phrase book, and a card with the hotel address.  Kathy & I were laughing so hard & getting so soaked.  We stopped & talked to another gentleman who pointed us further (& helped us figure out how to get around the construction).  Finally, we arrived at our 4 star hotel sopping wet, & Kathy with a bag on her head.  It’s always an adventure!

Wan An from Ku Ming.

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