Sunday, July 25, 2010

Day 8, Tuesday, July 13

Morning: As modern as the Beijing rail stations had been, the one at Xi’an was not. Quite the opposite. In fact, the restroom at the Xi’an station reminded me of scenes from “Midnight Express,” a very dark, depressing film set in Turkey. Outside the station, I scanned the crowd and much to my relief saw someone holding a sign, “George Taylor.” His name is Tiger Wang (pronounced Wong). He would be our driver and guide for the entire day. His English was not as good as John Ping’s or the boy's in the train station. Between Joe and me, we were able to pick up some of what Tiger was telling us.

We started the day with a visit to a factory which produces replicas of the Terracotta Warriors. We took plenty of photos. The tour is short and we ended up in the gift shop where our plant tour guide did his best to make sure we bought something. Joe expressed an interest in buying some miniature Warriors to give out at work. I explained that I already had several Warrior figures at home thanks to visits by my oldest son and more recently by my wife. The tour guide didn’t give up. Much to my dismay, he began the Silk Market bargaining process.

Joe had made his purchase and sat at the coffee bar, sipping from his cup, smiling at me still struggling with the tour guide, now salesman. I spotted some interesting Buddha figures. Before leaving the hotel the previous day, I read Mary Ruth’s response to my request for gift ideas. She wanted two Buddha figures, three paper scrolls with flowers printed on them and something for us. The asking price for the Buddha figures was 260 yuan each. I offered 200 for both and walked away to join Joe for coffee. The tour guide came over to me and asked for 300. I refused. Finally as we were ready to leave, the guide and salesgirl came over and sadly said they would accept 200. Two less gifts I’d have to bargain for at the Silk Market, I thought. But I wondered if I could have gotten the figures for less.

Afternoon: The Terracotta Warrior site is quite a ways outside of Xi’an. Tiger obviously graduated from the John Ping School of Driving. Without any signs in plain view, Tiger hung a sharp right turn and pulled into a back alley of a shopping area where he parked. (“This is my space.”) We walked through a shopping and restaurant area until we came to a ticket building. While still morning, I could tell it was going to be another hot, humid, cloudy day in China.

Tiger purchased our tickets and we hopped into a tram for the short ride to the site. The Terracotta Warriors are life-size clay figures created a gazillion years ago to guard one of the Chinese emperors after his death. Xi’an was for some time the home of the Chinese emperor. You recall how the Egyptian pharoahs were buried with everything they would need in the afterlife, well the Terracotta Warriors are sort of the same thing. Rows and rows of foot soldiers horsemen and their chariots, all made of baked clay, were buried about a mile from the emperor’s tomb. Some Chinese workers digging a water well hauled up Warrior chunks back in the 1970s and the dig was on.

Like the Great Wall, seeing photos or video of the Terracotta Warriors is not the same as standing in the main pit area overlooking hundreds of the figures that have been painstakingly reassembled. I was mesmerized, realizing the age of what I was viewing and the complexity of an ancient culture that could produce such an expansive project. The second pit was less impressive and the third lesser still. The onsite museum was interesting but the heat and humidity was taking its toll on me, and I was getting to sense I had seen about all the Terracotta Warriors I could tolerate for one day.

My travel companion Joe Krushinsky is an Elvis fan. I mean a “real” Elvis fan. Back when he was one of my students in high school, he had an Elvis costume and performed several Elvis numbers in a pep rally. Every year on the local American Cancer Society Telethon, Joe performs an Elvis number and we had considered going to a karaoke bar in Beijing so Joe could do his Elvis thing in China. The point is this: Joe made an important archeological discovery. It seems that some of Elvis’ moves may have had their origins with the ancient Terracotta Warriors. He offered the following photo comparison as proof.

Before we left the area, Tiger suggested that we have lunch. Joe and I spotted a Subway sandwich shop but Tiger recommended a little Chinese restaurant – one where he got his meal free when bringing paying guests. The food was average but the room itself was quite cool and at first that was a welcome relief. Soon, however, it was just plain cold.

Brandon had given us a list of the things we ought to try to see that day. Joe and I didn’t think of the list as something that had to be accomplished before leaving that evening, but I guess Tiger had the list, too, and he took completing it as a challenge. And so in addition to the Warriors we would see the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, the City Wall and tour the Muslim Quarters of Xi’an all before heading to the train station that evening.

Big Wild Goose Pagoda, not to be confused with Small Wild Goose Pagoda, was built by a monk who brought Buddhism to China from India. At least I think that’s what Tiger said. We walked around the beautiful grounds but decided not to climb to the top of the pagoda. Construction cranes dominated the landscape surrounding the historical site.

Xi’an is the only Chinese city to still have an intact city wall. It runs around the oldest part of the city. It is much wider than the Great Wall and it is flat. So it is a natural place for bike riders and you can rent bikes by the hour to ride around the top of entire city wall. We did not. Instead we climbed to the top of the wall near one of the main gates, walked around, took a few photos and baked in the heat. Luckily, I had not lathered myself up in sunscreen this day and my eyes were saved from great pain.

Our final stop of the day would be the Muslim Quarters of the city. The area was dotted with tiny shops and food merchants. I was amazed how food was prepared and kept so out in the open. The smells and sounds tickled the senses. Tucked inside the Quarters is a Muslim mosque which we just had to see, according to Tiger. He must have gotten some kind of kickback there, too.

After visiting the mosque, we walked along a narrow street with many merchants. We soon discovered that we were in Xi’an's own version of the Silk Market! I told Joe that I needed to get three paper scrolls with flowers that Mary Ruth had requested. If I could get them here, we would not have to go back to the Silk Market in Beijing. Joe urged me to do some shopping. I found what I wanted, but my offer must have been too low because no one chased after me as we left the area. We would have to go back to the Silk Market after all.

Before taking us back to the train station, Tiger suggested we have something to eat. At first I really didn’t want anything to eat. I was simply exhausted from the heat and humidity. Tiger purchased cold drinks for us. He said the drinks were a mixture of juice and medicine. I didn’t ask beyond that. Though in the Muslim area, the menu was Chinese. Joe ordered steamed dumplings which seemed to be the specialty of the house. The dumplings were filled with the meat of your choice, served in flat baskets and dipped in a spicy sauce before eating. I was glad Tiger had suggested a snack.

Tiger is a smoker. I saw lots of Chinese people smoking during our visit. Both Joe and I suggested to Tiger that he give it up. He was nice enough to not smoke near us, but I found it strange that the Chinese have not learned from American mistakes in regards this health issue.

Evening: Tiger got us back to the train station with about an hour to spare. The waiting room was full so we waited in the hallway. Right before boarding, we went back into the waiting room and Joe bought a drink and a popsicle. He said he wasn’t sure but he thought the cool treat was made out of beans. At least it was cold.

The overnight trip back to Beijing would be more comfortable because we were booked into a sleeping compartment. We both had bottom bunks. We wasted no time stripping off our sweat-soaked shirts and plopped onto the beds. To my surprise, the bunk was actually more comfortable than the bed in the hotel. The air conditioning felt good, too, but my throat felt a little scratchy. Our two Chinese compartment mates arrived and found Joe and I pretty much passed out even before the train left the Xi’an station. Joe said later that while he could not fully understand what the Chinese men were saying to each other, he thought they were concerned about the two apparently dead Americans in their compartment.

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