Domestic airline travel in China has been likened by My Lovely Wife to “a Tufesa Mexican bus with wings.” While I’d like to disagree, I can’t find many points of contention so I’ll admit that she’s more or less right. I’m used to it; the kid isn’t so it promised to be yet another adventure. In the end it was little more than mysteriously getting bumped up to the 1st class lounge (first time for me) and having a German try to give us a copy of the itinerary for his tour group because we didn’t look Chinese. On the plane I think she was impressed that the flight attendants addressed me by name. Status with Air China has its benefits. We were mightily entertained by the flight attendant’s attempt to stow a child’s car seat. First they told the mother that she couldn’t use it in the empty middle seat in her row. They insisted on taking it away, soon realizing that it would not fit in an overhead bin. We were seated in bulkhead seats and Aidan had her bag shoved in the little cubbyhole designed for her feet. The attendant asked to put it up top, which she did and then tried to shove the car seat into the gap. Of course that was absurd so they threw it in the exit row behind the last row of business class seat figuring that it would solve its own problem. We took off and once at cruising altitude they went back to trying to stow it, again overhead and once again in the hole thinking perhaps that spaces expand at higher speeds? In the end they buckled it in the empty seat next to the mother and told her not to use it. Lunch was then served and was the typical fare. The terrible turbulence during the hour’s descent was not appreciated by either of us but we were soon off the plane and heading out into springtime Xi’an.
Being quite a bit south of Beijing, the weather here was warm albeit just as hazy. The air in Xi’an is rarely clear in my memory it being in a dusty bowl at the base of some arid mountains. While there isn’t a lot of heavy industry, there is a lot of farming and farm houses are still heated with wood and chaff. Hence the pollution.
We were no more than 5 feet out of the terminal when the first of the taxi bandits approached us. “Cab with meter?” was the extent of his English and I said “sure”, take me to your master. Here it got a little confusing because while he was walking with us, it appeared we were being commandeered by a second party. The guidebooks warn you, and I know from experience that cabbies in Xi’an take extreme advantage of tourists. These guys though we a bit surprised to hear me speaking the lingo and once our bags were in the trunk the bartering began. “250” he said, “Too expensive” I replied, countering with 100. “Bu, bu bu, 200”. “No way,” I said, “150”. He said “no” so I told him to take the bags out of the car which he didn’t like one bit. His friend pulled out his cell phone and typed something on the keypad, holding it up for me to see. The number was “166” and I agreed, still feeling as though we were being ripped off.
The drive into Xi’an is along a brand new speedway that transects a dry plane with many mounds on both sides of the road dotting the landscape off into the distance. These are tombs, long since raided and emptied but still standing in memorial to some distant prince or concubine whose rest was long ago interrupted. The driver went on in silence and accepted our 160 at the hotel with as surly an attitude as possible.
We dropped off our stuff and headed into town planning to catch the last of the late afternoon light and to try for a dinner at one of the guidebook recommendations. The second cabbie drove like a madman, bringing to mind all of our loved ones who suffer from carsickness. If his vehicular gyrations weren’t enough, his offer of cigarettes and his smoking were. We rolled down the windows and watched the serene Little Goose Pagoda go by, a couple of blocks off to the right.
The Muslim quarter was a blast as always, this place takes the Chinese street experience to an entirely new level for a first-timer. Here you have not only ethnic Han Chinese but also Hui people, descendants of the Arab Silk Road traders of millennia past. With their colorful headscarves and paler skin, they look as though they belong far from this place. Aidan took photos of the food and the goods as we jostled our way through the crowd looking for the renowned dumpling restaurant that we finally found after three trips up and down the street plus a detour to take in the fresh organs alley. I asked one of the two young women guarding the door if this was it and she answered in the affirmative. It was hard to tell because the sign was not written in Chinese, it was written in Arabic. But the metal address plaque alongside the door confirmed that this was the number one recommendation of the Lonely Planet China Guide. We went in. It looked clean and it seemed as though I could probably order from the picture menu behind the counter but the fact that every single person in the place set down their chopsticks and turned to stare at us in silence was sort of off-putting. I stood there shifting my weight from foot to foot before deciding that we’d continue to look for a place to eat. We went out and headed back down the street.
And herein is my beef with guidebooks. Yes, they will give you some ideas. Yes, the places generally exist. Yes, the can give you a sense of what you’re in for. But having now spent hours of my time only to end up in a restaurant where no one wants you to sit down, I’m thinking that the people who write them have never actually been forced to use the fruits of their labor.
I had no back-up plan and we were stymied so we took off in the direction of the local mall on the hope that I could find a Japanese hot pot restaurant that a friend had recommended. No such luck and in a text message he claimed no knowledge of his recommendation. It was now rush hour and the streets were mobbed which made the walking very slow and tedious. We hit the main shopping street but the only things we could find were a Starbucks and a KFC, and I was not yet that desperate. So I led us off in the direction of the south gate of the city wall and hopefully to a fancy restaurant that I sort of thought might be there. A couple of blocks later and after getting kind of turned around by this giant building we were seated in a very formal Cantonese place with menus in hand. Naturally as we sat there ordering everyone in the place stopped eating and stared, but it was a bit less disconcerting in this joint, not being a neighborhood hangout. We had a nice dinner of duck and chicken and green bean floss and an expensive pot of Pu’er tea. The last hurdle was trying to order a bottle of water as the Chinese name for it always escapes me. If you ask for “water” you get a glass. If you ask for a bottle, they stare blankly. I solved the problem by walking over to the cooler and pointing at what I wanted.
Night had fallen while we were finishing up and we went outside to the deep dusk of a warm spring evening. The next goal was the top of the city wall and to get there you have to cross the busiest traffic circle in the city. We used the underground passages to get from one corner to another, trying to pick the best angle to get to the center but in the end it became a game of human Frogger, us inching forward until we reached the other side and tight-roped to the walk into the entrance. As luck would have it, we’d managed to hit the final nights of Lantern Festival and many of the lighted displays were still up and functioning. On the lead up to the ticket office, we had beautiful lights overhead depicting a grape arbor with flowers and birds and vines all done in rope lighting. I tried to claim “student” for Aidan but the ticket seller demanded a passport. I paid two adult fees and we went in.
There is a big courtyard behind the entrance which was impressively empty on my last visit. Tonight it was filled with all kinds of bright Lantern Festival displays, just like what I had seen back in Dalian at the end of Spring Festival. Cranes, horses, carriages, flowers, all wonderfully illuminated and brightly marking the dull gray walls. We climbed the steps to the top and looked down, marveling at the show. As always the guard towers were brightly lit. Some of festival lights were still on up top, but most were turned off. A group of men dressed as Tang dynasty soldiers with plumed helmets stepped out of one of the towers and marched off into the darkness. We walked a long way down to an exit I knew only to be told by the old man running the guard shack that it was closed for the evening. We turned around and went back, happening to catch a big drum and horn concert down in the square.
Once again across the traffic circle we hailed a cab and started back to the hotel. The circumstances of this ride were a little odd – the meter was already running when we got in and there was a guy sitting in the passenger seat. The cabbie headed off in a direction that I knew to be roughly that of the hotel, but not exactly the best route. A mile or so down the road he let the guy out after he paid. The meter kept running and we made a turn towards where I knew we should be headed. Eventually we pulled up and I paid the meter fare, apparently having been the victims of the old double charge scam. It couldn’t have been too profitable a con for the cabbie, the fare was about a dollar more than we’d paid for the same ride into town.
We had the famous Shangri La Hotel buffet breakfast the next morning, taking some time to talk with a couple that was on a side trip from cruise that had docked the previous day. Lily, my favorite Xi’an guide picked us up and we were on our way to see the Terracotta Warriors and this being my second visit, I let Aidan talk to Lily while I took in the sights. Arriving, we fell into line with a bunch of noisy teenagers on some sort of exchange student outing, judging from the huge count of home countries. Many Americans, a couple of Germans and at least one Kenyan. Like all teenagers, they were less interested in the history and more in wrestling. We used the same tram as they did and quickly put some distance between us once we entered the pits.
My plan for this day was to spend a lot more time photographing the details of the soldiers. I hadn’t nearly enough maneuvering room last time, but thankfully today the place was mostly empty. I took pictures, Lily gave Aidan the historical perspective and the teenagers yelled at each other until I told them to shut up. Which they did, with an apology. As always, the warriors were breathtaking and I’m convinced that it really takes two visits to get to the beauty of their uniqueness.
The Chinese here were deeply in love with Aidan judging from the number of them taking her picture and walking into shrubs due to their staring. This is just one of those odd things about living in a country where everyone has black hair – bring in a redhead and the place stops functioning. After an hour or two we exited through the retail district passing the beautiful horse sculpture and back to the car.
I wanted to make a stop at the Little Goose Pagoda simply because it is so serene and beautiful. Built in 900AD to house Buddhist scriptures, today it stands in a small park in the center of the city. Driving there we passed through an “employment street” – hundreds of men sitting on the curb with a small sign at their feet detailing their skills. Lily pointed out the chefs. The stop here turned out to be propitious – I found my very first Common Hoopoe, a wildly strange bird that I have wanted to see for the better part of my adult bird-watching life. I saw something rustling in the underbrush and went to investigate, and sure enough there it was. Lily thought I was nuts as I stomped around trying to get a photo which eventually I captured. Grinning like a kid I was doubly stunned to realize that the place was dirty with Hoopoes. I chased another one down for an even better picture before seeing them in trees, on wires and even on the roofs of the old temple. It was clearly Hoopoe day in this park.
On my last visit here I had made some sort of cultural gaffe when I asked Lily out to lunch. I didn’t really want to eat lunch with her; I just wanted her help in finding me some of the local cuisine. She had been so awkward in her refusal that I went away feeling really badly. And I was glad that she accepted the offer of employment this second time around. Today I used my mighty diplomatic skills to muster the correct question – I asked Lily if she would take us to the dumpling restaurant and get us set up. She agreed with a smile. Da Feng is yet another guidebook recommendation that I had been steadfastly incapable of finding. I have the address and I have a description but I’ve never been able to pick it out. And upon arrival my deep-seated distrust of guidebooks was hardened for a second time. Sure, it’s more or less on the street where they say it is, but it’s located on the second floor of a building a half block off said street in a non-descript giant retail building with no sign out front. Yes, I’m sure it’s easy to find for regular people or at least those with a local guide.
Lily led us in and asked what we wanted. I asked for an English menu – none. I asked if anyone could explain the dishes in even the measliest English – no. So Lily translated the offerings, we picked a dozen steamed and a dozen boiled dumplings and took our place at one of the tables over by a window. The restaurant was nondescript, just a long room with tables arrayed in straight lines. There weren’t many customers so it was quiet and peaceful and the food was excellent. So Lonely Planet – thanks for getting me to the restaurant which isn’t where you said it is and then helping me to order in a place that’s all in Chinese. We sat and enjoyed our late lunch, pausing only to let the Chinese walking by the window stare at us.
The last adventure in Xi’an is far more prosaic. After visiting Tang Paradise, the giant over-hyped walking mall that surrounds the otherwise beautiful Big Goose Pagoda, we caught a cab back to the hotel and walked up the street to Pizza Hut. In my book, everyone has to eat in a Chinese Pizza Hut one time. Not only does the menu have interesting items like deep fried breaded giant prawn pizza with pigs in a blanket crust, but the place is like a fancy restaurant. This one was so fancy that we had to wait for a table behind a velvet rope. What better way to end the evening in one of China’s most ancient and cultured cities, than to be wait-listed at one of the west’s best known fast food outlets?
The end of the tale of Xi’an is one of redemption. After two days it was time to head back to Beijing so we packed up, checked out and had the door man hail us a cab. This one had a meter, so I was excited to see how badly that 160 fare had burned me on the way in. I watched the numbers grow steadily as we entered the airport highway – 40, 60, 80, 100 – I began to feel like the theft might have been petty after all. As we pulled up to the departure drop off, the cabbie stopped the meter at 157, a mere 8 kuai or $1.20 less than the way in. I now understood the first guy’s insolence – a westerner had bargained him down to the normal fare. I gave this guy 160, told him to keep the change and went in to catch our flight north.