Friday, March 13, 2009

Xi’an’s everyday people

On our last day in Xi’an the sun finally decided to show its face, so it was good that we had saved the bike ride along the city walls till the end. We mounted the wall from the south gate which was conveniently right next to our hostel and rented bikes right at the top. The bike ride, including MANY photo stops (I’m surprised Jodee didn’t leave me behind), took just over 100 minutes to do the 14km circuit. Now that I can ride a bike I’m a little obsessed. As with Guilin, I think this was one of the best parts of the trip, and we didn’t even eat anything during it.

The city walls date back about 300 years, I believe, and are in great condition (they go completely around, which is already astounding). They are thicker at the bottom than at the top, and the top, where we biked, slopes slightly towards the center, which was tricky for my beginner skills.

From that viewpoint I got to see the diversity of Xi’an and understand a little better how the Chinese live. We passed some apartment buildings that had small units but were nice enough (they reminded me of shorter versions of Co-op City in the Bronx), some buildings that were built with pagoda-style roofs and seemed fancy, some one- and two-storey hovels with corrugated tin roofs, some concrete buildings with prison-cell-looking apartments next to huge plots of building rubble with unfortunate people picking through the debris.

One building looked like a two-storey mini-storage facility. Along the side of the building were metal garage doors that were all open to reveal one-room apartments with tiny beds, make-shift kitchens with boiling pots, lines hanging laundry, and people milling about inside. The strange thing about this “apartment” building is that the people inside looked like they should be living somewhere else completely. One woman was wearing cool high-heeled black boots, a vivid purple sweater dress and her hair was done neatly and stylishly – if she washed those clothes and that hair in that dusty hole it did not look it. I wonder if these people even have running water in their storage units or if there are taps along the outside – the building just didn’t look like it was built for people to live in. Looking at these houses made me wonder what all the people we’ve come into contact with go home to – our guide at Hua Shan with the perfect English, the kids who work at our hostel and are clearly educated…

In general I’m wondering how housing works in communism (mixed with “capitalism with Chinese characteristics,” as the government says). Do people pay rent? If not then how does the government decide who gets what level of housing? I’m going to have to ask Prof Cheung on Monday.

We went back to the Muslim Quarter for street food lunch after our ride, which was as delicious as yesterday. We tried four new things:
• Spicy cube noodles (they look like pieces of clear white jello) with green onions and hot peppers that they cook in huge iron woks on the street.
• Dumplings that were round with a high bread-to-filling ratio (they were almost like Central European dumplings) and very gooey, slimy-tasting insides; we’ve decided we’re not huge fans of meat-filled things in the Muslim Quarter because they tend to taste uncooked.
• Deep fried orange-colored patty that all the Chinese people eat – I was hoping it would be filled with pork, but of course it’s the Muslim Quarter, so in fact it was some kind of semi-sweet bread with black bean filling… less exciting.
• Deep-fried chips of sorts that were in an old popcorn-style vending cart; they were the crispy noodles they serve in the US with hot and sour soup, which I knew, but I pretended I didn’t know what they were so I could justify buying a bag of them.
We ended up buying more dried kiwi and crab apples (I’m calling them that until I can find out the right name) to take home as well as more fried seasoned breads and mochi to eat while we walked. I’m going to be full for days.

We ended the trip by taking a cab to the tomb of emperor Jingdi, having our driver wait for us while we looked around, then drive us to the airport. (Shuyuan Hostel organized that for us for only 250 yuan, and our driver was very nice and listened to American pop music from the early 2000s - fantastic.)

Lonely Planet said this was the most under-rated attraction in Xi’an and I would agree that it was very worth the relatively expensive trip. It was so strange, though, because the tomb and museum are very modern and well-organized and the landscaping of the area is pristine, yet it was eerily empty and it is hard to get to the site by public transport. Jodee and I weren’t sure what the reason was behind the seeming privacy of this site.

Emperor Jingdi was from the Han dynasty (considered the ancestors of the modern Chinese people), and lived about 100 years after Emperor Qin of the terracotta warriors. He was Taoist, and apparently they believe in letting things happen as they happen (or something to that effect), so he was quite peaceful as far as Chinese emperors go. He did things like lower taxes and cut back on military expenditures, and is known for being a great and wise ruler.

His tomb was such an interesting contrast to the terracotta warriors for two reasons: first, he included figures (also clay) more related to daily life and government than the military, and second, the figures were not life-size. His figures included cows, pigs, dogs, horses, pots, urns, chariots, dancers and musicians in addition to some soldiers. They were also arranged in separate pits, similar to the terracotta warriors (only a fraction of the pits are open to the public/have been excavated), and these pits seem to be separated by function or government department. So one pit had lots of animals and a seal symbolizing the government’s minister of raw food materials. Another had many jars that were supposedly originally filled with grains and a seal symbolizing the government’s minister of fine processing of food (these terms are strange because they come from the bizarro English translation of signs in the museum). The figures were also small – the people are about 2-feet tall and the animals and vessels are about proportional to them. It seemed Jingdi wanted these to represent what he would have in the afterlife, whereas Qin seemingly thought the actual terracotta warriors were going to come alive when he died. I wonder if that had to do with the differences in their religious beliefs/the superstitions of the time, of which I know nothing about.

While these differences make Jingdi’s tomb worth visiting, an additional draw is the fact that it is in mid-excavation. The museum showcases certain pieces already unearthed while the underground museum shows the pits in their current state of continuing excavation. The underground is basically the pits covered in plexiglass walkways so you can see into the pits and even see archeologists dusting away at artifacts with their brushes. I tried desperately to take a picture for Spencer (my god-daughter’s 4-year-old brother) since he is obsessed with the dinosaur bone archeology kits from the Field Museum, but the pits are so dimly lit that almost nothing shows up on my camera. Hopefully he’s young enough to think my second-hand description of it is cool without the photo.

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