China Part 4: Xi’an
We arrived in Xi’an after only a 2 hour delay – these delays are the norm it turns out for domestic flights in China. While in Shanghai, Kuang’s Mum had mentioned in passing that she had a good friend in Xi’an, who would like to meet up with us when we got there. Great! Always a good thing to meet a local, get some information on the area, have the regional favourite food from the best restaurant, and best of all, steered away from the Lonely Planet route!
We arrived to find a guy waiting patiently with a name board for us. This was Mr Wong, and he was Kuang’s mum’s employee’s father’s subordinate, and he had been given the great honor of showing us Xi’an. Not entirely sure what we were getting into, we followed him to his van, hopped in, and headed into the city. First stop was at a chain diner, with a similar feel to McDonald’s, but with Xi’an delicacies instead of hamburgers. Here we were introduced to what translates directly as ‘cold-skin noodles’. Thick and chunky noodles are stirred with a slightly spicy sauce, and served cold – and it was delicious.
After our late lunch, we were taken to the Xi’an International Horticulture Expo, the new pride of the city. In a rush and a roar, we were bundled onto a golf cart and whisked off into the park. This was no ordinary horticulture expo. In fact, it was a tad hard spotting the horticulture bits. There were statues, replica villages, animal enclosures, grand replica buildings… oh, and some plants too. By far the most impressive sight was the technological creativity show – a walk through exhibition of some of the cutting edge technology in the world, including robotics, hydroponic systems, and some good ol’ fashioned genetically modified roses, with variations such as gold and rainbow petals.
From there we were taken around to more stands. The animal enclosures were extremely depressing; coming straight from Chengdu, we had seen healthy and happy pandas – these pandas were nothing like that.
After scooting around the huge park, we were quickly ushered off the cart, and bundled back into the van. From there we were taken to our accommodation, and were able to settle in for a bit. Not for long, however, as we were soon picked up again and taken to dinner, there to dine with Kuang’s Mum’s employee’s father. Taken to a restaurant that boasted a long history (I’ve since lost the name of the place – I will try find it and update here). Like in Shanghai, we were treated to a multi dish extravaganza, but the key dish of the night was the Yangrou Paomo, an interactive dish where you are given a piece of flat bread, which you break into small pieces. You then select your soup, and the next moment, you have a soup with… small pieces of bread in it. While it seemed rather peculiar, we were assured it had a long history, back to one of the eminent figures of ancient china, who lived as a beggar for years, subsisting on flat bread and weak soups. Nevertheless, it was delicious, and the torn up bread creates an almost porridge like consistency. Very easy on the stomach, especially after days of oily fried foods.
Towards the end of dinner, rice wine was introduced. Don’t be fooled by the ‘wine’ label – this stuff is potent. The drink of that night was a particularly sharp one rated at 50% alcohol. Needless to say, after multiple rounds of toasts (these were fast flowing and meant all involved had to finish their drinks) we were well on the way to a bad morning. As the evenings proceedings drew to a close, the claim was made that rice wine causes no hangover – a claim I was desperate to believe in, as the next day had so much in store.
The next day started early. By 8am we had breakfasted, packed, and were in the van on the way out of the city. Remarkably, we were all feeling great – with no ill feelings from the previous night’s consumption. I made a mental note to make a more thorough study of this incredible alcohol in the near future. We were bound for a place I had read and dreamt about since primary school: the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, also known as the Terracotta Army. I could launch into a fair amount of detail here about this army, it’s historical significance, and it’s remarkable make up, however this is all easily found online – I’ll let your fingers do the walking for that. There’s a few things that are absolutely outstanding for me about the Terracotta Army:
– There are more terracotta warriors than there are personnel in the entire New Zealand Defence Force.
– The entire Mausoleum is designed as a fort, complete with defensive battle formations, walls, and command centers.
– Each warrior requires about 7 years of man hours to be reassembled and restored.
– The current area on display is only one CORNER of the overall formation protecting the emperors tomb.
After spending the morning being guided around the sites, we were ushered back into the van before heading back into town, there to have a very brief guided walk of the city walls. The Xi’an City Walls are possibly it’s most prominent land mark, and a precious one at that – the only original and complete city wall still standing since the cultural revolution bulldozed the majority of other historical structures. Standing at 12 meters high, and 18 meters deep, the walls are an amazing sight to behold, especially for a boy like me who can attribute a large chunk of his historical knowledge to the Age of Empires series.
We had a short lunch diversion to the Muslim Quarter (established in the heyday of the Silk Road – this was where the middle eastern merchants set up shop to sell their wares after the long and dangerous journey across Asia). Lunch consisted of a delicious restaurant rendition of the Xi’an famous ‘cold-skin noodles’, and a selection of juicy dumplings.
From the wall we were taken to the Shaanxi Muesum. This behemoth of a museum was the first of the large government museums open to the public, and it holds about 400,000 artifacts collected from around the area, telling the story of the Xi’an/Shaanxi region from about 10,000 years ago right up to the last dynasty. We were also fortunate enough to go see the temporary exhibit that was on at the moment – a rather peculiar showing of the contents of 3 large claypots found in a buried building on an excavation site. The origin of the pots is up for speculation, but the range of the contents spans cultural, economic, and societal boundaries of the time period it is from, paving way for theories that it’s the loot of a thief, or the travelling stock of a very well rounded merchant.
I’d highly recommend getting a guide for the whole museum tour – it’s fairly well laid out and curated, but the extra depth and clarification that a good guide can provide makes the whole trip even more enriching.
Our history lessons for the day weren’t over however – we were taken to the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, a keystone site for Chinese Buddhism. While I’m still fairly in the dark with the finer details of the story (as it was translated in bits and pieces by Yean and Kuang), the pagoda was built to house the relics and scrolls of the great monk and traveller Xuanzang – who spent 17 years travelling to India in search of the great Buddist scripts. Upon return to Chang’an, he established a translation school, and spent the rest of his days translating the vast books and scripture he had returned with from India. Upon entering the tower, I was immediately stricken, primarily by the low stone doorway, designed perfectly for 5 ft monks but rather painful for unaware 6’4 western travellers. Still seeing stars from the blow, I staggered up the 7 floors of stairs, and was just in time for sunset over the city, with a perfect vista looking out north, south, east, and west.
Dinner that night was at a restaurant at what I believe was the West Lake gardens – previously the Emperor’s summer gardens. By this stage I was getting accustomed to the fomalities of a Chinese dinner party, and I was finally able to start relaxing and enjoying the atmosphere. With Yean’s help in translation, I was able to discuss the advertising and design scene in Xi’an with our hosts (dormant and docile were the general conclusions), and how life in Xi’an differs from Shanghai and Beijing. It was then that I realised, this was the furtherest inland I had ever been. In my life. The closest sea water was about 1500kms away. Funnily enough, that thought scared me for a moment. To this day, I don’t know why.
Even more rice wine was drunk that night, and by the time we left the restaurant, our heads were spinning. We were invited to a golf cart tour of the gardens, and I’m sure they were nice – my memory of them consists mostly of blurs, punctuated by a rather humorous recollection of a guy on a bicycle riding straight into a pillar because he was too busy watching us.
When we were dropped off at the hotel, we were just getting into party mode. With too much energy we unanimously decided to hit the town. And hit the town we did. Wandering down the road from the hotel, we struck upon an awesome set up – a huge (as in about 12 ft long) telescope mounted on a scooter. Excited, we eagerly handed over the 10 yuan each to have a peak at the moon, saturn, and numerous other planets. As we were finishing up, we noted a crowd had formed around us, all eager to have a peak at what ever it was that was exciting us so much. We walked on a bit futher to find a temporary arcade set up, with various fun activities that would generally be found in a school gala in New Zealand. Feeling competitive, Kuang and I challenged each other at a shoot out, using replica ak47 bb guns against balloons. After I won by 1 balloon, Yean and Angela took each other on in a far more skillful game of darts and balloons. All this got us worked up into a great party mood, and we struck out for a bar. We made it about 1 block before tradjedy struck. Yean took a mis step, and wrecked her ankle. Game over. Unable to walk, I piggy backed her back to the hotel, which took some finding, and we contented ourselves with drinking in the hotel room.
Again, we woke up with no consequences of the night’s revilries, except for Yean’s ankle, which by this stage had swollen up and was looking well bruised. Immobilising it as well as I could with our basic first aid kit, we met up with our hosts one more time for a Xi’an Breakfast (a variation on the bread soup we had for dinner a couple of days ago), and bid our farewells. It wasn’t until we were seated on the aeroplane and just about to take off that we started asking ourselves ‘What the hell happened back there?’