Muslim Street, China

Trip Start Jul 03, 2009
Trip End Aug 16, 2009

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Flag of China  , Shaanxi,
Saturday, August 1, 2009

We said goodbye to Shanghai early in the morning to catch our flight to Xi'an, and our drive was memorable. Traffic in Shanghai is difficult to describe, and heartburn-inducing to be a part of. It’s not like India, where there is virtually no pretense of following established rules. Also unlike India, it’s not lacking in gleaming new infrastructure. In fact, the quality of many of this country’s bridges, tunnels, and highways equals or exceeds that of the United States. The drivers, however, follow a different set of rules than those to which we are accustomed. Case in point, our morning drive: Keep in mind that while signs in the cabs remind everyone to buckle up, we’ve yet to see a functioning seatbelt. In light to heavy rain, our taxi hurtled down the highway at 70 miles per hour. Although we have turn signals, our driver seemed to feel it was beneath him to use them. Lane changes are signaled by horn. Passing is performed equally on the left and right, and side of the road. Construction cones blocking off areas are seen as suggestions rather than hard-and-fast prohibitions. Silent electric motorbikes weave through lanes, and occasionally, we see people walking or just lounging on the side of the expressway.

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. (Now it’s a “small” city at over a million inhabitants). Surrounding the downtown is a restored, 14-mile long, 40-foot high city wall and accompanying moat.

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. …And the nose: roasting nuts, grilled corn and meat, and clear-your-sinuses bubbling pepper concoctions mixed with more earthy smells like sewer, mud, and fish heads. We wound through tight alleyways no wider than my arm span, and past all manner of shops. Although many catered to tourists with the same mass-produced trinkets we’ve seen everywhere, there was a more laid-back attitude on the street. Since the area caters to its locals as much, if not more, than tourists, we were able to take in the daily lives of people and felt less on display. Our destination was the Grand Mosque, which was a unique fusion of Islamic and Chinese architecture, and a very peaceful place.

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
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