I began Saturday at the Little Goose Pagoda. I’d been led to believe that there was not much to it but I was pleasantly surprised. After a cab ride that made me think that I was about to be the victim of meter padding, we arrive at a side street gate. I was having my doubts because we came a way that was different than the night before when I saw its silhouette looming against the dark sky while on my way to the Drum Tower. This entrance was on a side street and so the approach was different but the cab fare was the same and so my suspicions were groundless.
Xiǎoyàn Tǎ as it’s known locally was built between 707 and 709 on the site of the Jiànfú Temple which had been dedicated in 684 AD to the heavenly afterlife of the Empress Gaozong. The pagoda was originally a taller structure used to house Buddhist scriptures that had been brought from India. An earthquake in the 1500’s knocked off the top couple of stories and today it shows a somewhat jagged crown. It was tall, pale yellow in the morning sun and while appearing simple at the macro level it’s detail work was quite beautiful. The grounds were lush with a mix of broadleaf trees and pines and even a Yucca or two thrown in. Black-capped Magpie Jays squawked in the trees, paying special attention to the small herd of feral temple cats that prowled in the underbrush.
The thing I learned immediately is that are only two ways to photograph a pagoda – along an edge with it soaring into the sky or straight on which makes it look somewhat more squat than it really is. I wandered around the gardens looking for the ideal spot and ended up with a lot of pictures in which the building looked the same against different foregrounds. I finally gave up and wandered off, stopping to listen to a small orchestra in traditional Tang Dynasty clothing performing music of that era on reproduction instruments. It was engaging and I loved the costumes. The small audience was appreciative and the musicians seemed very dedicated to their art. I didn’t even mind when the imitation swirly hairpieces came loose and fell off a couple of the women at the end of the performance.
There was a small museum adjacent to the pagoda and I took a stroll through the gardens, taking the time to enjoy the large collection of stone carvings set among rose bushes. I guess I never really knew it, but the Chinese rulers of the middle-ages loved to record things in stone. On these grounds there were several tall stele embossed with calligraphy and encased in brick frames, standing on the backs of giant stone turtles, symbolizing the steadfast nature of the emperor’s decrees. Having seen most of the place I took an exit on the street I knew and headed in the direction of the Drum Tower.
As I was walking along this street taking in the sights and fending off the glances of the locals I got to thinking about how I look versus how your average tourist appears. I think I project a sense of calm confidence as opposed to the outright appearance of confusion and tension I see on other westerners I might happen to pass in a neighborhood like this. Of course it’s a rare day when I see a western face in the places I like to haunt so my theory can only be tested against those people I see in the tourist traps. I think it comes from familiarity with the surroundings and a grasp of the language but maybe more so from a sense of how the streets work and the fact that I’ve seen 99% of anything I am likely to see on such a walk. Anyway, it’s nice to walk along and think you’re special, even if you’re not.
I crossed the moat and went through the Zhueque Gate with the Muslim Quarter in mind. I wanted to find the Great Mosque as it represents the spiritual center of this transplanted community of Central Asians unique to Xi’an. The guidebooks said it was hard to find but the map suggested otherwise showing it as a giant green blob right behind the Drum Tower. Relying on my seldom-erring sense of direction I chose to ignore the instructions I had on hand, instead heading up a side street that should have run along the mosque’s left side. What I got for my daring was a walk through Central Asia on a Saturday morning, people of a zillion ethnicities out shopping for their weekend groceries. Stand after stand of vendors selling all kinds of nuts, fruits, vegetables and combinations of those things, most of which I had never seen anywhere before. Women in scarves, men in white hats all cooking, bagging and preparing food for the shoppers. I walked through the butcher district, stopping to look into the single room slaughterhouses, floors slick with blood and piled high with pig skins. I’m not sure but it looks as though Xi’an’s Muslims might not have the same admonition against pork judging from the stacks of pig legs and pig organs I walked by. In front of one place I saw five or six delivery style bicycles laden with all manner of cow skeletons, stripped to the bone. Table after table of livers, hearts and kidneys all sitting out in the morning sun.
I had no idea where I was going so I chose the first right turn figuring I was now circumambulating the outer perimeter of the mosque. From blood and guts to souvenirs, the transition was instantaneous. The crowd got worse though and it was tough to move, dodging the scooters, bicycles and pedal-cabs. I was sure I was going to catch the leading edge of a cart frame square in the leg but I kept my wits about me and avoided a trip to the hospital. I finally made it out of this street and found myself on the same crowded street I abandoned the night before. I wasn’t quite what to do so I headed back to the Drum Tower figuring I’d reset my baseline and try again. The guidebook said I should walk up the street I was standing on and take the first left, so I did and found myself right back where I had gotten to on my own although this time noticing a sign the said “ Great Mosque”. I really didn’t want to wade back into the chaos I’d just escaped but I wanted to find it so I did. The book said “a few more steps” and it wasn’t that at all. In fact had my sixth travel sense not kicked in, I never would have found it at all. I happened to stop at the end of a covered alley that led who knows where back into the warren and decided to take it. More vendors along here although this crowd was selling the traditional junk of China – tee shirts, belts, watches, luggage and North Face jackets. They all spoke the common tongue, “Hey Mister, you come and take a look, tee shirts?” and I walked past smiling and saying “I don’t want them” in Chinese. A voice behind me through me a curve ball though – a young woman in a traditional Muslim headscarf started mocking me with “Me you qian”, the standard second line of the harried tourist, “I don’t have any money.” I guess she’d heard it a thousand times before and I’m not surprised given the crap she was trying to sell. She followed me for a short way before laughing and giving up.
At the end of that little retail hell stood the mosque, first built in 742 AD and rebuilt and refurbished during the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties. Unlike mosques elsewhere in Asia, this one is unique in being built in traditional Chinese palace style architecture. Even the minaret is a pagoda.
The details of the place were unique and interesting and the quiet was very nice after the mess outside the walls but overall it was a bit of a letdown. I took some pictures here and there and volunteered to take a group shot of a family that was taking turns taking pictures of each other. I counted down in Chinese just like I always do and the young woman, in traditional dress and probably about 20 corrected my pronunciation of the word for “2” as it seems I had rolled my “r” too much to her liking. She did this in perfect English; I said it properly for her and followed with be telling her my Chinese was not that good. She walked away laughing. The highlight of the place was the grand prayer hall, closed to infidels but with doors open, though which you could see countless blue and white prayer rugs, each stained from generations of heads being pressed down on them in sublimation to their god. Overhead a sign in bold Arabic script drove home the point that China ended at that doorstep.
I left, passing my tormentor on my way back out of the alley and waded back into the throng. I wanted to try and get a few candid pictures of the people in their native dress so I stopped and changed lenses. As I was fumbling around with that I looked across the lane and there was a guy from work with his family bargaining down the price on trinket. I went over and said “hello”, both of us ignoring the absurdity of bumping into someone you know in a place like this.
After stopping at Starbucks for a coffee and Danish and calling My Lovely Wife to give her a report on the oddball tourists wandering by I went off in search of my next stop, the Beilin Museum. Again I had a rough idea of where I needed to go so I took the underground passage under the Bell Tower traffic circle and headed off through some rather rough neighborhoods before emerging in a beautifully restored Hutong-style neighborhood in the vein of Xintiandi in Shanghai. No trinkets and junk here, there people were selling beautiful Chinese are – paper cuttings, scrolls and paintings. Very, very nice stuff with a reduced crowd volume boot. As the price goes up, the people go down. I found my way to the base of the wall and followed it to the museum.
This place, known as the Forest of Stone Steles houses thousands of stone plaques carved throughout the history of China. Simple things like the totals of the annual grain harvest to the more momentous, a stone telling of the arrival of the first Nestorian Christian monk in 781 AD. Several spoke of the arrival of various Buddhist monks from Southeast Asia and some commemorated the long service of a dedicated bureaucrat. It probably would have been more interesting if I had some skill in reading traditional Chinese characters, but the volume and age of the stones was reward enough. And the grounds were nice too, this being a re-assigned Confucian Temple. Tall trees lined the main avenue, along which small pagodas held stele of their own. Off to one side was a beautiful sandstone horse, near life size, that was carved and dated in 422 AD. Its ears were gone but it still had its regal beauty, 1600 years later.
When I decided to find this museum, I thought I was heading to see a collection of these unique gray granite stone pillars that I’d see in books. The Little Goose Pagoda had quite a few, but this place was supposed to be a “forest” of them. Well, so much for assumptions – the stele turned out to be the carved gray stone tablets and the pillars turned out to be horse hitching posts from the Ming era. Imagine my surprise. I did find a nice collection of them off to one side of the grounds. The top of each one represents some mythical creature or person according to the local animist tradition of the person who carved them. So simple and so small, yet in many ways far more interesting that many of the big things I had passed already.
One last walk on the city wall was in order so I found a gate and went up. Quite a difference, the walls are much nicer at night when they don’t stretch in a boring gray line off into a boring gray distance. You see the peeling paint and the missing pieces, stuff that is erased when the sun goes down and the fairy lights twinkle on. I walked a half mile or so down to the next exit, watching the cyclists blow by and looking down over the reconstructed Ming neighborhoods below, the only true marvel of this last little walk being the garbage cans fashioned to look like Ming bronze bells.