As you've read so far, the trip between Shanghai and Xi'an was pretty exhausting, especially during the ordeal between Nanjing and Xi'an. When we got off the train at Xi'an we once again had an awful time fighting through the crowds of people trying to sell us taxi rides and hotels. The experience of this can't be properly described, but it is overwhelming... people on all sides trying something, anything to get you to give them money. I am not very good at this; I tend to smile and say no in Chinese, but they don't give up. Roy is much better and he has an almost Zen-like approach, in which he scowls and waves his hand in their face. This is remarkably effective.
With this in mind I put Roy in front of me as we left the station. One of the people was a young girl of about 15 who said "are you Jamie?" Roy followed the same strategy of waving his hand, but the girl shoved a brochure at him and he took it. It turns out that she was from a youth hostel. After getting money from an ATM and eating some breakfast, we decided that it looked much nicer than the hostel listed in our guidebook, and we went there.
It was the right decision. This hostel was set up in a 300-year old mansion, and all of the people who work there are college students who were studying English and spoke very well, and we stayed up late drinking coffee, playing chess, and talking about world affairs. Not only that but we took the cheapest room (in the basement), which was only 20 Yuan a night (about $3).
The hostel was situated on a narrow road right off the city's busiest intersection. There were only two buildings in use on this narrow road--our hostel and a gay bar. If we went back to our hotel at night we saw shy men scuttling to the bar trying to hide behind the foreigners taking the same route; it turns out that homosexuality was officially considered a "disease" by the government until just last year and the bar has been closed down many times by the authorities. Anyway, since there are only two reasons to go down this road (the hostel or the gay bar), it did occur to me that city residents who know of the gay bar but not the hostel must be under the impression that Xi'an has a huge population of gay foreigners!
But Xi'an was a beautiful city and we had a great time, especially after the city of Dengfeng. We decided to spend a few days there to see all the sights. Three millennia ago Xi'an was the capital of Han China and probably the largest city in the world. Enormous walls surround the city and ancient pagodas sit handsomely in city square, serving as reminders of how the city was many centuries ago. And, because it was the starting point of the silk road, the city is made up not just of Han Chinese, but also Tibetans, Mongols, and Hui Chinese (Muslim Chinese who apparently originated in Persia but have since intermarried with the natives and look very east Asian). Because of this, Xi'an has a beautiful mix of ethnicities and religions. And the food was just wonderful, a vast improvement over Shanghai, Nanjing, and Dengfeng--not only was it tastier, but it was cheaper too!
On our second day we hung out with "Tom." Tom is a student studying agriculture at a local university. Tom is Chinese but he has that English nickname since it is apparently pretty tough for us white people to pronounce his real name. He was friends with the people working at our hostel and we met him on the evening of our first night. He offered to show us around the city on our second day, and we had a great time walking through the city and climbing the city walls.
From left to right is Tom, myself, Roy, and the Mongolian monk. This is also the only photo of several hundred taken (by Roy) on the trip that includes the two of us.
The plaque on the right here says "Love the country, love religion." This is, however, a somewhat recent concept...
As we looked around the temple, we saw this very poignant scene--a damaged Buddhist statue sitting next to a wall full of bullet holes. At first I thought it might just be wall damage until Tom said that it was indeed a relic of the infamous Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution was a ten year purge from 1966-1975. Mao Zedong, losing his grasp on power to the 'capitalist roaders' inside his party, made a direct appeal to the people to rise up and stop the imperialists. The goal of this revolution was to destroy China's historical symbols of oppression--in other words, everything that had culture connected to it. "How can I make the Cultural Revolution spread everywhere in China?", Mao asked his political allies. His solution: the Red Guard, radical pro-Mao student groups who used violence to achieve their goals. Students across the country joined in his crusade to destroy the 'four olds'--old ideas, old customs, old habits, and old culture. Teachers were 're-educated' and replaced with peasants, doctors killed, temples destroyed, and all those who resisted were killed in one of the worst episodes in modern Chinese history. Our Mongolian friend said there was a larger statue here before, but it was destroyed by the Red Guard. Somehow, the artwork at the Nanjing memorial came to mind.
One interesting stop we made was the main city Mosque. Architecturally it is almost indistinguishable from a Buddhist temple.
We were there just in time to see the locals leaving 5pm prayer. Notice that the Hui people, although they look East Asian, wear white hats in accordance with their Muslim faith. Apparently, those who have been to Mecca wear black hats.
But I digress. There was plenty to see in Xi'an and our four days spent there were well worth it. Another site we saw was the tomb of the Terracotta Warriors. About three thousand years ago, the first emperor to unite Han China had an army of clay soldiers made to be included in his tomb. Two years after his death a peasant uprising destroyed what they thought was his tomb; but they only saw a very small part of what was there. In the 1970s, peasants discovered the tomb when they were digging a well, revealing one of the most impressive archeological finds of the century. And it was fortunately discovered after the Cultural Revolution, thus sparing it the destruction wrought on other cultural treasures of China in the 1960s and 70s.
(Photographs were forbidden; but if you want to see pictures, just punch in 'Terracotta Warriors' into a search engine and you're bound to find plenty of photographs.)
We left Xi'an to go further west on the evening on March 19th. Just before we left I went to the Internet cafe to confirm the rumors I had heard from our friends at the hostel -- the US invasion of Iraq had begun, just in time for us to enter the heart of Muslim China!
|c. 2005 Christopher Gunson|