Reaching our limit & accentuating the positive

Trip Start Jul 22, 2011
Trip End Aug 12, 2011

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Where I stayed
Grand Noble Hotel, Xi'an

Flag of China  , Shaanxi,
Wednesday, July 27, 2011


This is our first of seven domestic flights. We wake up at 5 AM.  Yikes!  Gerry meets us in the lobby and we exchange gifts.  We give him a tip that is not obligatory, but we feel he deserves.  He gives us a paper cutting (see photo) that he explains is practiced as a form of meditation.  I am intrigued. 

We have brought a breakfast in a box from our hotel since our breakfast was prepaid; once again we appreciate our guide who prompted us to ask for this the previous night.  We could have eaten two breakfasts because it seems that no matter how short the flight, you will be served some food and drink on domestic flights.  In the on-board magazine, I see an ad for the Trump Towers in Miami Beach.  East meets west.

Coming out of baggage claim, we are welcomed by our guide who is holding a China Highlights sign with our name.  We so appreciate having this convenient greeting service and not having to navigate local transportation ourselves.  Our guide, Olivia, is very different from Gerry.  Once we have met our driver and settled into the car, Olivia launches into an historical overview of the area that is appreciated but sounds like a recording.  I hope that she loosens up and relaxes with us.  We learn interesting tidbits that I jot down.  Beijing is a 6 ring road city and Xi'an is 3 rings reflecting the needs of the 19.3 million people who live in Beijing and 8.4 million in Xi’an.  The brand of all taxis is "BYD" in Xi’an and it is a Chinese made car.  It stands for “build your dream” and it runs on natural gas.  There are two different fuels for cars – petrol and natural gas.  Petrol sells for the equivalent of $5 a gallon and that makes it more expensive in China than in the U.S.  The highway is empty in mid-day as we cruise along on a recently expanded airport road.   We see the smog in the distance in the direction of the city.

Harvey tries out his Mandarin with Olivia and within a minute we learn from her blank stare that the dialect is different.  She starts to relax as she describes the differences in saying “no big deal” in Xi’an versus Beijing:  “Moa Mada” and “Mayo Fan Da”.

On our way from the airport to the city of Xi’an we stop at the Han Yangling Museum.  It is sort of like the Egyptian pyramids in that the area was the burial grounds for the Western Han Dynasty emperor and his empress.  After 28 years of construction it was finished in 126 B.C.  Around the main tomb there are 81 satellite tombs that have not yet been excavated!  It seems that thinking big is a Chinese tradition.  The main mausoleum looks like a topless pyramid.  Before entering the inside display of the excavations we are given cloth to wrap around our shoes, much like those worn in surgical operating rooms.  In sections, the floor is glass and you can walk over the excavations and peer at the figurines all 24 inches tall, as well as a host of horses, sheep, pigs, dogs and chickens.  Tens of thousands have been unearthed in the area.   It was dark in the mausoleum’s temperature controlled building lending a quiet hush to the few visitors there.    This visit was planned as a prelude to the iconic site of the Terracotta Army that we will see tomorrow.

We stop at the Qianzhou Restaurant and have a tasty lunch of extra long green beans (green beans on steroids, maybe 16-24 inches!), beef with cumin and needle mushrooms & bok choy, and pork with bamboo shoots.  Our meals are gravitating to every dish having vegetables and being simply cooked.  The meats are used more for flavoring with the main feature of each dish being the vegetable.  We find that we are satisfied with this style of eating and don’t have that heavy feeling in our stomachs after a meal.

As we head into the old city, Harvey comments about the traffic, how people drive, and how incredibly as we look around, the cars do not have dents or marks.  There is a style of driving that is assertive, but somehow drivers yield and everyone makes their way.

Xi’an was an ancient capital of China and its city wall is one of the oldest and best preserved. We arrive around 1 PM at the hottest part of the day with the temperature in the high 90’s as Olivia arranges for our bike rental.  We have 1 hour 40 minutes to bike around the wall ramparts and we think this will be a piece of cake.  After all, we’re used to the heat, we’re from Miami Beach and we’re in good shape.  We seem to have the wall pretty much to ourselves.  In Miami we would be called gringo locos, meaning something like crazy Americans for doing this at this time of day.  We stopped periodically to peer over the wall.  We were both surprised how clean the public toilettes were and I was especially relieved to find a western toilet. We try to bike in the shadow of the wall to keep out of the direct sun.   I admit it was more of a push to make it in the time allotted than we thought it was going to be.  Towards the end, when we approached a section where we thought we were back where we started, we found that the sections all look the same and had to continue on.  We thought we had taken a good look at where we had started!  We knew we arrived when we saw Olivia waving at us.  It was fun and a good workout.

After the bike ride, we were heated up like toast.  As we entered the Forest of Steles Museum, I realized that we would now bake in un-air conditioned buildings.  Within minutes, we were intrigued and we set all those thoughts aside.   The museum is famous for preserving ancient Chinese tablets that stand in great number, just like trees in a forest.  These are more than 900 years old. The museum also preserves 3,000 pieces of stone tablets and tombstones.  Its stones represent a treasure trove of ancient Chinese calligraphy art as well as a collection of ancient Chinese classics and historical literature.  It was used much like a library where students could bring their own rice paper and make rubbings for their own book – a manual printing press so to speak.  It makes one really appreciate Amazon and salivate over an ipad. Harvey used his iphone app to see if it would recognize any of the ancient characters.  The app didn’t but he and Olivia were able to recognize some of the ancient characters. I enjoyed looking at the different styles of calligraphy, each unique.  Viewing this calligraphy was a highlight of the day.  In one of the courtyards, we saw some beautiful watercolors and brush paintings and commented to Olivia.  After seeing our interest, she mentioned that there was a museum that we might have time to take in tomorrow that she thought we would enjoy.

It’s 5:30 and we are absolutely exhausted.  Beyond exhaustion if that is possible.  Harvey has developed blisters on his feet.  We know we have to eat something for dinner so we go around the corner looking for the fruit market that Olivia had told us about.  We can’t easily find it and Harvey is having trouble walking, so we choose a nice restaurant called Renrenju.  Harvey has a second wind of energy. With three waitresses who speak only Chinese, the manager who speaks a tiny bit of English along with Harvey’s iphone app and our sense of humor, we get us through ordering from the menu.  We enjoy some yummy food - beans and eggplant, noodles with sprouts and rice.  

We zone out in front of the television.  We find CNN in English.  After we’re tired of CNN, we flip channels and find a Jackie Chan type film where you really don’t need to listen to the voice to get a gist of the plot.  The martial arts were entertaining.  Other shows were like our westerns, but set in imperial times and of course, the China state news station.  It’s interesting that we haven’t seen any western television shows at our hotels.  China has a large production studio much like our Universal Studios built in a rural area where they build the sets for movies and have people who can be hired as actors and seconds.  It is supposedly enormous (by now you get a sense that every project in China is).  This has become a go-to production facility for international production companies because of the low cost build-to-suit business model. It has also become a domestic tourist destination, much the way of Hollywood, California. 

I found that when we were surfing the stations, my eyes were drawn to any station that had green foliage in the movie.  I had not realized how much the city infrastructure and crowds had made me yearn for the solitude and beauty of nature.  I knew I was not a city person, but this trip has so pushed me to my limit that I have never experienced in such a way previously.  It’s contrasts like this that confirm more firmly what I have acknowledged for some time.  Cities, especially densely populated ones, are great, but in small bites.  I’m a nature girl.

Before going to sleep, we talk about some memories.  Harvey remembers the German man on the Great Wall being disappointed with the weather and the photo opportunities. I remember our walk this evening looking for a fruit stand and the sight of a street corner that had a tent with five or so mats for sleeping and someone charging for entry.  We look around our hotel room and think of our home and how fortunate we are.  Harvey comments about a song by Johnny Mercer that he begins to sing “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative”.

Lights out around 9 PM.

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