Muslim Street, China
Trip Start Jul 03, 2009
45Trip End Aug 16, 2009
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Upon hitting traffic, our cabbie began gesticulating to us wildly, and banging his head into the side of the glass partition. It was clear that he was either warning us that traffic would slow our trip to the airport, or that he needed to be taken to the hospital because he was having a stroke. To relax himself, and maybe us (though we were calm), he began shoving a pack of filterless cigarettes in our direction. Again, it’s unclear if he was offering us cigarettes or asking permission to smoke, but we decline. "Maybe they’ll want music," seemed to be his next thought, so we were treated to a mix of American and Chinese pop songs, some of which our fifty-something driver even sang along to. In any case, we made it to the airport and on the plane.
Our first impressions of Xi’an were not positive. We encountered some smog in Shanghai, which we thought was pretty bad (in fact between the smog and the rain, we never saw the sun). Xi’an brought our experience of air pollution to a new level. A haze blanketed the city, preventing us from seeing more than 200 yards ahead of us, and a light drizzle fell. The whole city seemed grey and drab, without the charm of old architecture, nor the shininess of a new skyline.
Fortunately, first impressions can be wrong, and as the day progressed, the skies lightened somewhat (though the haze remained, along with an acrid smell). Xi’an is, at its core, an ancient city. It was once the most powerful and cosmopolitan place in China and a center of art and learning
After a few days of dumplings, we needed some western fare and found it at the tasty, quirky Highfly Pizza. This establishment, oddly decorated in Germanic themes, offered some comforting favorites: garlic bread, pepperoni pizza, and four-cheese pies. We were served by a girl (and I use this term deliberately) who could have been a castaway from the national gymnastics team. Her English was careful and precise, if not entirely tactful, as when she remarked to Maribeth, “You are sick…and you should take medicine.” (It’s true, Maribeth has come down with a sinus infection). Also notable about the restaurant was its choice of music, which, in the short time we were there, ranged from power ballad (“Lady in Red”) to cinematic (“My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic) to—honest to God—holiday favorites (“Oh Come All Ye Faithful”).
Fortified, we headed to the town’s center and its bell tower, a pagoda-like building from which bells are rung each morning. Inside, we stumbled upon a short concert featuring a performer on a set of bells that are several hundred years old (watch the video, it’s pretty cool). From there, we took in the Muslim section of town, and it was a treat. Chalk full of people, bikes, scooters, and carts, it also teemed with an eclectic mix of food vendors and many foods we’ve never seen before. From handmade date squares (pounded into forms with mallets) to sweet-sticky rice dishes (don’t miss the video of Maribeth trying it), to gelatinous cubes wobbling in an ancient-looking wok, to all manner of meat on a stick, it was a feast for the eyes
Back on the city streets, we headed to Xi’an’s restored wall and climbed to the top. The restoration was recent and well-done, and we enjoyed our peaceful stroll along the dividing line between the old and new city. Cranes dotted the skyline (we counted 5 major projects from just one randomly selected point). On one side, we could see the city’s newest mall, the Times Square, and on the other, an outdoor table tennis area in the park along the moat. After covering nearly 10 miles on foot, and getting caught in a “traffic median”—a one-foot wide area with buses narrowly missing us on either side—we decided to go local for dinner (burgers one foot from the edge of the bed.)
Tomorrow: Terra Cotta Madness