Day 6: Flabbergasted in Xi’an

(This is an epic post, so my apologies!  Dig in.)

So I have been intimating about the befuddling tour we took in Xi’an.  Well, today is the day.  Of course we had Sam to translate the tour-guide, but that responsibility can be wearying even on a normal day.  And this was no normal day.  This was a day-long, continuous stream of information using obscure vocabulary in a loud van.  So I forgive Sam for not giving every tidbit while yelling to me in the front of the van (ahhh the privileges of the tall) over the guide’s continuing screech.

**A note on speaking Mandarin:  I can’t do it.  But today was a pretty immersive experience and I noticed a few things about the language which lead me to believe that all Chinese people are secretly ghetto.  (A pause while I consider how to explain this without sounding like a racist.)  There are a couple of throw-away words in Mandarin, I assume they are the place-fillers such as like, uh, and um that rear their heads frequently.  The first, spelled phonetically, is neega.  I’ll allow you to repeat it to yourself over and over, which is what people do in Mandarin.  The second, again phonetically, is holla.  So while sitting in the van, most of what I heard was neega neega neega holla HOLLAAAAAA. Pretty ghetto.  Holler.

The Tour Begins. We got off the train and somehow found our tour bus.  How?  These are the details that I see fit to ignore.  Poor Sam.  She’s the only one equipped to deal with the logistics.  But she’s pulling it off for us.  There is a Chinese family that we saw on the train who ended up on the tour with us.  I remember the woman in the polka dot shirt because she had a crazy swept-up beehive hairdo that somehow managed to survive the entire night on the train.  Did she spend an hour in the horrible train “bathroom” (think: hole in the floor) this morning, coiffing?  Did she sleep on one of those Geisha neck rests?  The mysteries you encounter in China.

By the end of the day we were thinking of the people in our tour as members of some sort of extended adoptive tour-family.  Our family members were

  • Grandma Blue.  Named so because she wore a bright blue shirt.  We developed affection for Grandma Blue because she was sweet and seemed to be looking out for us – she would make sure the group waited for us when we wandered away like aimless children.
  • Red Hat Twins.  Two young girls who wore bright red hats.  I don’t think they were actually twins, but whatever.  They seemed nice and had fun.
  • Little Shit.  A young boy who was a little shit.  Though for the life of me I can’t remember what he did to earn his name.  I do remember that he had really crooked teeth.
  • Purple Mom.  Wore a purple shirt.  We thought she was the kids’ mom because she spent so much time walking with the Little Shit.  But it turned out that she was their aunt.
  • Aunt Dot/Auntie Polka Dot.  The beehive woman with a polka dot shirt.  Turned out to be the mom.
  • The Man.  Grandma Blue’s husband, I think?  He was nice and quiet so we didn’t really have much to say about him.  Hence the boring name.

During the long explanations by our tour guide, we spent a lot of time watching the family and talking about them.  In an embarrassing turn, we found out that Purple Mom was some sort of professor (and English professor maybe?!?) and the Red Hat Twins also spoke a little English.  So we were racking our brains to remember if we said anything really horrible about them.  But the family seemed to like us, so I think we were okay.

The only thing I understood about the tour was that we were going to see the terra-cotta soldiers, something I was very excited about.  So on every stop I was wondering if this was going to be it.  And it would take the entirety of the stop for me to figure out, oh this isn’t it.  Like a child with no concept of time – excited for something to happen in the future but really I had no clue when.  Our first stop was a small museum.  Okay, a nice warmup.  I’m getting used to tuning out the tour-guide’s voice.  I think we then stopped for lunch.

Lunch. This was probably the oddest meal we ate the entire time in China.  We walked into a big room that evokes your middle school cafeteria.  It’s a restaurant where all the tour companies go for lunch, so it basically only serves tourists. That’s your first warning sign.   So we enter and immediately lose our family.  Where could they have gone?  We just walked in.  It’s a big room, not a labyrinth, how can you lose seven people?  We just walked in.  So weird.

We sit at a little table and find sets of plates and cups and chopsticks all vacuum-sealed in plastic wrap.  You have to pay to use their dishes.  Another warning sign.  Part of me wants to stick it to them and just eat off of their serving plate with my fingers.  But I suppose that wouldn’t be very diplomatic.  Or hygienic.  (Even though we are shameless about our liberal use of antibacterial gel.)  We ordered a big dish of chicken with one wide, serpentine noodle curling its way through it.  The noodle was okay, despite its similarity to a well-fed tapeworm.  But all the chicken was gristle and bone.  And we had to pay for our napkins as well.  More warning signs.  And we could just imagine our family, sitting in  a private room, familiar enough to order all the really delicious fare. While we were eating, the employees were unrolling and displaying huge prints of Chinese paintings to be purchased.  This one is pink blossoms by a river.  Here’s another but with orange blossoms.  Here’s black and white bamboo.  A lady in a robe with fat cheeks.  Yin and Yang goldfish.  Ecstatic running horses.  Draaaaagons!  It was like a reeeeeally low-class auction house.  And they almost convinced me that I should be buying them.  Not just one.  All of them.  More warning signs.

So many Mausoleums. Stuffed on the several ounces of chicken meat from lunch, I was ready for the terra-cotta.  But first it seems we are going to stop at the mausoleum of someone important.  An emperor no doubt.  Fine.  We go through a building, down some stairs, down more stairs.  Ducking the extra foot of my height under low eaves, we seem to be in an actual cave now.  Well, this could be pretty cool.  We come out into a huge room like the inside of a pyramid, the roof creating its highest point in the center.  We are standing on a balcony that surrounds a tomb below us in the middle of the room.  But what are all these papier-mache people set up all around us?  (One grouping looked suspiciously like they were doing unspeakable things to a donkey.)  And what’s with all the little buildings around like a tiny city?  Come to think of it, how is there electricity in here?  Wasn’t this like, thousands of years ago?  This looks like a diorama some giant created while tripping on acid.  Are those snake-people dancing on the ceiling?

As evidence of my utter confusion, at this point I still thought this was the real mausoleum.  I was rethinking everything I knew about the Chinese Empire and electricity.  Could they possibly have had electricity a thousand years ago?  I thought Ben Franklin “created” it like Newton and gravity.  Or could this mausoleum be from, like, the nineteenth century?  WHAT IS GOING ON HERE??!

Turns out it was some sort of re-creation.  I don’t think it was very effective, seeing as it is a complete guess – they’ve never seen the inside of the real thing.  So I’m going to venture a guess of my own and say that it probably doesn’t look like a cross between Pirates of the Caribbean and It’s A Small World with a fellating donkey thrown in for good measure.  Maybe we’ll see the terra cotta next?

Mistreating the Donkey?

Dancing Snake People on the Ceiling?

Disneyland Mausoleum

Getting out of the van at the next stop was promising.  The UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sign at the front was certainly a good sign.  (Literally! HAHAHAHAhahahah hh…hmm)  This has to be it, I thought.  Do we want to pay for a tram, they asked us.  Do we know where it goes?  No.  Whatever.  Sure.  So the tram drives us around this park for a while.  No terra-cotta.  A bunch of people are walking up those huge steps, maybe it’s up there.  No terra-cotta. (Panting.) What the hell is this place?!?  (Laughing).  We’re going to see the terra cotta at some point today, right?!  Where the hell have they been taking us?  What have we been doing all day?!?  (Hysterical laughter.)

The big hill we climbed ended up being the actual mausoleum, the copy of which we saw earlier.  Fake Disneyland Diorama Mausoleum.  Check.  Actual Big Hill and Nothing Else Mausoleum.  Check.  Terra Cotta.  Next?

Terra-Cotta.  Thank you Jesus. Finally.  It was a big, established tourist attraction.  Ticket gate.  Tourist Shops.  A ton of people.  This has to be it.  I’m not going to go into a whole thing about the terra-cotta, because the pictures do it better justice, but I will say this: we witnessed a truly incredible piece of world history and I was not disappointed in the least.  Really amazing. (Photos to follow soon.)

On the other hand, I am going to talk about some other random things that happened at the terra-cotta place:

  • Sam got strong-armed into a picture with a random group of people because they had purple shirts on.  But Purple Mom didn’t get invited, which is weird.
  • We were hyper-exposed to Chinese men wearing their shirts up around their nipples in an effort, we suppose, to keep cool.  We have dubbed this the Male Midriff.  It doesn’t make me comfortable.
  • In another installment of Butchered English On T-Shirts (And Some Other Places Too)!!!, walking up to the main buildings we encountered a sign reading: DO NOT STAMPEDE.  Which was ironic when there was only one young child on the path at the time.
  • In the last building of the terra-cotta experience, there are two incredibly tall marionettes.  One is a fifty-foot terra-cotta soldier looking stern and imposing, and the other is a twenty-foot young girl with creepy, soulless eyes.  They are holding hands.  The way the soldier is looking menacingly down at her, combined with her guileless smile and unfeeling eyes, create a rather foreboding prologue of what’s to come in this unfortunate, tethered marionette relationship.

The Jade Factory – A Tour Requirement. If you have never been on a tour in China, you may not be familiar with the jade factory.  This is a requisite for any tour.  They call it a factory, but really it’s just a store.  And you don’t actually tour it, but you shop.  It’s like a guide-imposed trip to the mall.  It’s the tourist trap taken to a whole new level – you don’t even have a choice because the tour company gets paid to bring their patrons to the shop.  While you are there, you will probably see some demonstrations, and here are a few of my favorite:

  • The Clink-The-Jade-Bracelets-Together-To-Determine-Their-Value Demonstration: apparently, more valuable jade is more (or less?) dense, and clinks at a higher (or lower?) pitch.  The Look-At-The-Bracelets-And-See-Which-One-Is-Darker Demonstration is a poor man’s version.
  • The Magic-Tea-Pot Demonstration: you turn the magic pot upside down and pour in water through an open hole in the bottom.  Turn the pot over, and the water stays in the pot.  Magic.
  • The Really-Big-Jade-Boat/Dragon/Buddha/Lion Demonstration: this isn’t really an actual demonstration – you just go look at the really big jade sculptures.  Who wouldn’t want a five foot long, thousand pound jade boat as a souvenir?

It’s kind of nice being so obviously of non-Mandarin-speaking origin, because the salespeople can see their pitch is wasted on me.

Concubines’ Hot Springs.  Oh Yeah. Our final stop on the tour was at a really beautiful garden area with courtyards and buildings containing pools of water sunk into the stone.  It was some emperor’s thermally heated springs for his concubines.  I think.  By now Kristy and I were luxuriating in the linguistic disconnect.  It’s actually very liberating to just look at things.  And it helps hone a photographic vision.  In another installment of Butchered English Spotted On T-Shirts (And Some Other Places Too)!!, there was a sign declaring: Hole of Jinsha, with a big arrow.  I think Jinsha was a concubine.  That might cost a little extra on an American tour.

Dinner: Things Floating in Hot Water. We walked from our hotel into the old town Xi’an that is surrounded by ancient walls to eat a famous Xi’an delicacy: little pieces of bread in soup.  This meal was pretty confusing in its own right.  We were given empty bowls and piece of flatbread.  Thankfully, Sam knew that we were supposed to tear up the bread into small, isometric bits.  Apparently this is important, because we spent quite a bit of time doing this.  The bowls were given to us with a flat, metal plate with a number stamped into it.  Then they took out bowls and metal plates and brought them back with soup inside.  I suppose the numbered metal plates are so you can be sure you are enjoying the fruits of your own labor, rather than the person next to you, who didn’t exhibit much care during the bread-breaking process (probably because she doesn’t like soup, calling it “stuff floating in water.”)

I had the nagging feeling that this was a tourist trap, self-consciously pulling my bread apart thinking, these servers must think we’re so dumb!  There was another white person also performing the ritual, which strengthened my suspicion.  But then some Chinese people came and did it too!  Salvation!  Now I can enjoy my meal.  Well, at least more than Kristy, who is poking at the soggy bread in the bowl.  To give her credit, soup never looked more like “stuff floating in water” that it did that night.

After dinner we walked to Xi’an night market.  Of particular interest to me were the stands with intricate cages strung between tall poles, each carrying some sort of large insect.  Crazy.  We also saw a guy with a homemade rack on the back of his bike displaying his blown sugar animal sculptures.  We walked for about 15 more miles, ended up coming out at the east wall instead of the south, and took refuge in the glowing comfort of a taxi.  What a day.  And guess what?  Tomorrow?  Day 2 of the tour.

Big Mausoleum Hill

Zen Doorway

Xi’an Night Market

Night Market Insect Cages


3 Responses to “Day 6: Flabbergasted in Xi’an”

  1. 1 Kristy
    February 23, 2010 at 7:03 am

    Soup is “solid stuff floating in liquid” and it’s foul, especially when it consists of torn up, hard, flavorless bread and long clear noodles. Once again, thank goodness for cilantro.

  2. 2 Sam
    February 24, 2010 at 9:37 am

    um, Kristy, you’re completely wrong.

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