Monday, July 09, 2012

Chengde to Xi'an

The morning was spent at the Mountain Resort, a beautiful compound of buildings in a park setting, like the Forbidden City
only with mature pine trees everywhere. Pagodas set in the water, people singing and knitting and playing. When the kids get bored, they pull out the hackysack and kick it around with Eric. An older Chinese man from a tour joins in and soon his whole tour group in their matching orange caps are watching and taking pictures.

The lake is pretty, but the water is stagnant. Spaces that were grass are dry, packed earth. The potential for beauty is there but the foot traffic is just too intense. I guess this is what overpopulation looks like. You really get a sense that the natural resources are stretched beyond all coping.

We said a very sad farewell to Eric. What a host. And got on our flight to Xi’an. I am sitting beside a guy who says a warm hello when we sit down. He strikes up a conversation. His English is fantastic although he keeps informing me that it’s not, tapping on his forehead when an English word escapes him. He wants to emigrate to the US. Not to live there. He wants to stay in China but he desperately wants the freedom of movement. In an effort to build his own business, he travels 28 days of the month, never getting to see his wife and four-year-old daughter, a situation that obviously pains him a lot. When I talk to him about worker’s rights and the west’s inability to understand why factory workers are asked to work as many hours as they do never mind WHY they would want to work as many hours as they do. He answers that people are desperate to get ahead. “Your parents and your parents’ parents,’ he says, ‘they make the good choice. My parents and my parents’ parents make a wrong choice. Now we have to… catch up.” He and his wife would love to have another child but would have to pay the local government 300,000 yuan to do so. Some cities charge up to 500,000. The rich are the only ones who get to have big families. “I am anxious. I am very worried, he says, clutching at his chest, for the future. We can not trust what the government says. We need many changes.”

The flight gets in very late but Vivian, our new guide and Mr. Wang, the driver, are there to greet us. We chat with Vivian on the hour-long drive into Xi’an. We get a brief glimpse of the wall that separates what they call the “inner city” and the “outer city”, an intact wall that stands at least 30 feet high and almost 50 feet across with a six-metre moat surrounding the whole thing. It is lit up with a long line of red lanterns hanging from stylized dragons.

In the morning we go to a tiny little museum. We’re the only people there — a welcome respite from the crowds and jostling. A lovely woman walks us around, giving us a brief but fascinating history of the techniques and eras of Chinese art. We get a lesson in calligraphy, learning some basic characters and the strokes that make up the language. I hadn’t realized that there is also an order to how the strokes are made, top to bottom, left to right. On the drive to the Terracotta Warriors, I try to get a handle of some of what I learned at the museum pointing out characters I recognize and asking Vivian for confirmation of their meanings. Yes, that is the sign for door, but in this context, she explains, it means something completely different. I give up. I’ve always been able to get at least a basic handle on the language of the country I’m visiting but I just can’t seem to retain a word of Mandarin from one minute to the next.

Out to the site of the Terracotta warriors. The highway is a hairy reminder of just how scary the driving is in mainland China. One car completely stopped in the passing lane attempting to reverse (in the passing lane) to the exit he just missed. We are ferried to the site of the warriors on little electric carts.

The size of a football pitch, perhaps bigger, the trenches are 7 metres deep. The crowds are pretty thick but nothing like the Forbidden City. Dodging the tour leaders’ flags, we manage to get a good look wherever we go. There are over six thousand warriors and they stand in 11 columns guarding the tomb of China’s First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, which lies 1.5 km to the west. Except for the last infantrymen on the outside who stand with their backs to their comrades, flanking the army, every one faces east. Can you say intimidating? The scale is mindboggling. The Emperor ordered the construction when he ascended at 13 and work lasted until he died at 50 of mercury poisoning, which he was ironically taking to stave off illness. They’ve been at work here, painstakingly putting the pieces back together, since it was discovered by a farmer digging a well in 1974. A large section of the back of the building is given over to the “hospital”, where warriors are assembled before being returned to their original position in formation. When we manage to get close enough, I can’t get over the detail. Creases in the palms, treads on the soles of the shoes, individual hairs. Every single one of the warriors is unique. Sadly, most of the weapons were looted but of those that survived, the blades are still razor-sharp and intact, having been surfaced with chromium oxide (something westerners didn’t figure out ‘til the 18th century).We’re talking 200 BC here! We visit two another pit and check out two bronze chariots which were buried slightly nearer the tomb which were meant as vehicles for his soul’s use in the afterlife. They are half size but exquisite. Vivan tells us there are more than 500 burial pits in a 60km circle; enough work to keep archeologists busy for a long, long time.

As we get from place to place, we chat with Vivian about life in China. She talks about the people’s mistrust of the government line, citing the high speed train crash last year. The official story is that 39 passengers died, but she says people just don’t believe it. She talks about medical care and how people sit in emergency wards untreated until the money is paid up front for care. She said that a couple of years ago the government blocked facebook and blogspot in China, requiring users logging on to use their mobile numbers as their usernames, thereby eliminating all hope of anonymity. The price of critical writing online arrests, imprisonment or worse. As we drive by the imposing city wall and the moat, it occurs to me that this era is only the latest in a long line of oppressive dynasties in China — the walls no longer physical but technological as the government parses everything before it finds (or, more tellingly, doesn’t find) a home on the internet. The lack of gathering places for the people in city planning right up until the cultural revolution a sure sign of the dynasties’ awareness of where the real power lies. Divide and conquer. Vivian’s mother was in middle school when Mao came to town. Abandon school was the message. Leave the city. Go to the countryside and grow food to feed your countrymen. It is apparent Vivian mourns the life her bright mother never got to lead.

We go out for dinner to a dumpling banquet, the dish that Xi’an is apparently famous for. In the entrance of the three-storey restaurant, we find dumplings in the shape of the Chinese flag. The restaurant is an absolute zoo. Round tables of ten on their feet doing shots of baiju (Chinese firewater). Everyone is getting totally soused. Waiters wander around with teetering towers of dumpling steamers. The kitchen is a huge production line of staff in white, hunched over worktables, carefully folding the myriad stuffings into wrappers. We order a bottle of wine (wine from grapes, we need to specify, unless we want to drink baiju). The cocktail waitress, dressed like a volleyball player in shiny t-shirt and green shorts and pushing around a little cart of booze, brings us a bottle of Great Wall. Our expectations for Chinese wine aren’t high but after a few sips James realizes that the bottle is corked and Abby attempts to return the bottle. “But it’s not past the expiration date”, the waitress contests. Abby patiently tries to explain. “But it’s brand new. I just opened it!”, the waitress retorts. In the face of explaining the ins and outs of corks and what they can do to a bottle of “grape” wine, we give up and move on to Tsingtao. We emerge from the restaurant to find a square full to bursting with people out enjoying their Saturday night. Techno music blasts from a ghettoblaster and teenagers dance around. With little else to look at, people gather around the teenagers and watch them doing their self-conscious moves. We dodge busses and mopeds and tuktuks every time we cross the road. The most common shape of traffic at an intersection in Xi’an seems to be a herringbone. Drivers feel no compunction at speeding across oncoming traffic to make their turn. Pedestrians and drivers constantly involved in an elaborate game of chicken. Close to the hotel we come across twenty or more women lined up on a wider part of the sidewalk all waving their arms and prancing around to some music. You gotta love the 10p.m. streetside exercise class.

We wander around the city in the morning, getting lost in the narrow streets of the Inner City. People stare but usually return our smiles or “ni hows”. Occasionally they hold up three fingers asking if all three kids are mine. Most storefronts are miniscule, less than 40 square feet but managing to pack in everything under the sun. People sit out on the sidewalks, workers shell shrimp or push bits of meat onto kebabs, we see roasting vats of sesame seed paste, whole chickens and ducks in windows, coal fires toasting walnuts. People hunch over bowls of noodles. The streets and sidewalks are slick with oil and dirt and rubbish. It’s no wonder people remove their shoes on the thresholds of their homes. Grandparents sit on short stools hold and feed babies while the parents run the shop. I don’t know if this exists outside of China, but until about two babies rarely wear diapers. Instead, their pants are slit from belly button to tailbone and they pee or squat at will. Must save a lot of laundry.

We wander through the Muslim neighbourhood of Xi’an. A stallholder has tiny little steamers stacked up on her counter beside a long line of colourful jars. The steamers hold little pats of sticky rice which she mounts on two skewers then slathers with chocolate or fruit jelly and then dips in sunflower seeds. The kids feast as we check out the stalls. Vendors sell lamps and Mao trinkets, t-shirts, scarves. You have to be ready to haggle and haggle hard. Wil has got the “walk away” technique mastered, getting his price on everything. The doorway to the mosque is tucked in among the stalls. We step through the door into an oasis of peace. Everything looks ancient, the woodwork is dusty, the colours are all a bit grey and there’s something a bit strange about seeing Chinese men dressed in white jalabas and taqiyahs but the quiet is wonderful.

We spend a glorious afternoon on the wall. We rent bicycles and do the nine-mile loop, refreshed by the warm, gentle rain that is falling and watching the world go by.

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