The Walled City of Xi'an

Trip Start Jul 09, 2007
Trip End Dec 20, 2007

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Monday, August 6, 2007

Day 29- Xi'an- beautiful city, but watch out for the massages!
  We didn't sleep too well on the train.  We made noisy stops throughout the night. Who boards a train at 3:00am?  At 6:00am our neighboring passengers were awake and in full action- filling their noodle bowls with water, watching tv, and shouting at each other (because scream is the only volume they understand). 
  It was pouring rain when we exited the insanely crowded station, and we had to walk a few very wet blocks to our bus.  There was a concierge on each floor of our hotel who even opened the door to our room for us.  This came in handy, for as we walked through to the room a rancid sewer smell almost knocked us backward.  We ran back out and pinched our noses to show the woman what we had just endured.  She, apparently, needed to smell it for herself, and half a second later we were escorted to a new room on the other end of the floor.  While the hotel was nicely decorated and very clean, there were a few telltale signs that it served more than just tourists and backpackers.  A small clear shelving unit in the bathroom offered some interesting items for purchase.  Underwear, vibrating condoms, and genital wipes (one for 'men only' and the other for 'women only').  The instructions on the genital wipes clearly stated that they were only to be used on the punundem(???).
  Our group met in the lobby for a breakfast feast at a nearby hostel.  Everyone was excited that the menu offered American, English, European, and Jumbo style meal choices.  I chose the American and Phil got the Jumbo (of course).  We washed our eggs, sausage, bacon, ham, and toast down with a couple of smoothies (the mango was great, the hazelnut not so much).  After breakfast Toffler shared a story with us that sort of explained the odd 'shopping items' in our bathrooms.  Late night calls can be expected in the room from women offering massages.  These are not massages, however.  A previous group member mistakenly accepted the offer (his back was killing him after a long bike ride).  When the woman arrived at his door, he opened it for her and lyed face first on the bed.  The confused girl thought that he was signaling that she was not pretty enough (therefore wouldn't even look at her).  Within minutes she had sent a different, more attractive girl, for him.
  Most of the group had decided to go to the Xi'an museum.  We were museum and cultured out, so we asked the hotel reception where we could find ping pong.  We walked ten very long blocks to what turned out to be a private gym.  An English-speaking employee was summoned and we asked about just playing a game or two of ping pong.  We thought we understood her as saying the price was 15yuan for 1 hour (a great price), and asked for the paddles and ball.  The girl waved her hands and said "no".  We thought we would check the nearby sports stores and see if we could get cheap paddles and a ball.  The "right" price, turned out to be 50 yuan ($6.50), and it came with a carrying case.  When we walked back into the gym the girl pointed to our paddles and said, "we have paddles for you".  We also realized that we misunderstood the price of ping pong as well.  It was 50 yuan, not 15.  But, it was for both of us, and it was a complete day pass to the entire gym. 
  The weather was horrible so it was a blessing.  We played game after game of ping pong for which Phil said that I became noticeably better with every one.  I even beat him (for real) one game (or so he said).  I decided there and then that when I get back to the states, I'm going to look into playing professionally.  The gym was so cute.  It had an aerobics room (that provided distraction during ping pong time), cardio machines, bench area, and even a half-court basketball court.  We would take breaks from ping pong and sit at the bar.  Yes, the bar.  That is one feature that our fancy NYC sports clubs are missing.  The bar was filled with men playing pool, drinking, and smoking cigarettes.  Phil and I just shared a Gatorade. 
  After a shower and a nap, it was dinner time.  The group (minus the Argentinean couple who were very sick) went to the Muslim Quarter for a hot pot. 
  This is one of the few meals where I seriously questioned the quality and handling of the ingredients.  As you enter the establishment you pass rows of various cuts of lamb, beef, chicken, seafood, tofu, seaweed, root and green vegetables, mushrooms and who knows what else.  Nothing was refrigerated or shielded in any way.  Not to mention it was a very warm night, maybe 85 degrees and no air conditioning throughout.   We were reassured by our guide that the place was a regular stop on her tours with no issues reported, but with the same breath she mentioned that she wouldn't be partaking in the dinner. So we were ushered to our tables on the second floor where a large steel pot was divided in half and filled with two chicken broths containing herbs and spices, one somewhat spicy with chili pepper the other was plain.   Several baked, thick pita like breads with garlic and salt arrived and were promptly devoured.  This bread was incredible. Following were broiled skewers of cumin seasoned beef which were gamey and very tasty.  With the broths coming to a boil, ramen and thin cuts of frozen lamb in plastic bags were put in the middle of the table for all who were daring enough to skewer and throw them in.  It was very good and ready after only about 30 seconds of boiling as the cuts were paper thin.  Our room was equipped with the same rows of raw and cooked pre-skewered options as downstairs.  I sampled mushrooms I've never seen before, beef, chicken, tofu, cabbage and other Chinese vegetables indigenous to the area. We washed everything down with the local beer and prayed we wouldn't get sick.  The stomach gods must have heard us.  There were no problems.   After the skewers were counted (the method by which the restaurant calculates the bill) we owed about $6 each.   It was a super interesting meal and cuisine style that I don't believe we have in New York.  I would love to try it again but not in the dead of summer.  
  Some of the group were heading out to the bar area, but Phil and I decided to make it a quiet night.  As we walked back to the hotel, though, we heard music coming out from behind some bushes.  As we peaked through, we saw a spinning disco ball, and a bunch of Chinese people two-stepping.  We found the entrance to the park and found the cutest outdoor dance party I've ever seen.  Admission was 2 yuan for both of us (27 cents).  We walked in to meet the shocked eyes of every single person in the place.  I'm surprised the music didn't scratch to a halt.  The dancing resumed a second later, but eyes were still upon us.  We tried to mingle and fit in, but it wasn't working.  On the right side of the space, older women and men danced ballroom-style.  On the left side, the younger ones did sort of line dancing moves to the Chinese pop beats.  We gravitated left.  The first dance was an easy one with only four moves.  Phil and I joked at how robotic it all felt, almost like a communist march. 
  We left our intimate dance party to find another one in the center of town.  As we continued walking home we came upon the big square inside the south gate (the entire city is surrounded by a wall).   The city was alight.  Every pagoda and tower was lit up red (the good luck color for China).  Thousands of people crowded the square with dancing beneath the moonlight in the center of it all.  Women in brightly colored dresses with even brighter umbrellas shook their hips to the haunting drum beat.  It was eerie and beautiful all at the same time.  Men were gathered in another corner singing in unison a sort of 'we the people' chant/song.  Tonight was the first time I really felt like I was in China.  The beauty, color, culture, and tradition mixed with the poverty and overcrowding, perfectly tonight. 
Day 30- Bike the city wall...
  We went for a quick breakfast at the nearby bakery, and joined a couple of local girls each enjoying a beautifully decorated whole cake!  We shared a couple of little muffins (green tea and chocolate) and a tuna roll.  We met up with the rest of the group at the nearby hostel where they were finishing up their breakfast (the same from yesterday).  From there, it was only a short walk to the south gate of the city wall, where we all rented bicycles for the day.  Phil and I actually bought out the rest of a Chinese man's time on a tandem (two-person bicycle), for a cheaper price. 
  It was one of the hottest days in China, but we enjoyed a breeze as we rode.  There were steep flimsy ramps up and down which were interesting to navigate, and the last part of the wall was extremely bumpy.  The experience, however, was one we would not soon forget.  The views were spectacular and the company even better. 
  After the wall, we joined another couple, Dan and Michelle, for ice cream and a walk to a nearby Mosque.  The journey soon took a new turn, when we all got a craving for cheese.  We went in search of an international supermarket (which we were told was close by).  We finally found the supermarket and the cheese!  I love China, but they are in desperate need of more dairy.  We ate our long-awaited snack in the food court of a posh mall, surrounded by Armani, Gucci, and Ferragamo
  After a quick shower and rest at the hotel, we met up with the group for dinner at a very popular Mandarin restaurant in town. 
  We told our guide we didn't want to spend too much money and she really delivered with this giant, two hundred seat western-themed place.  We shared maybe twelve dishes with the clear star being a pork shoulder in a sweet chive and anise sauce.  (Similar to a dish we've had in Shanghai Café in New York's Chinatown).  The meat was so fall-off-the-bone fantastically moist and the sauce went with it perfectly.  I tried to hard not to show the pleasure on my face so we could keep this dish.  My prayer was answered as the others found it a bit too visually unappealing when they got closer to the bone......the best part.  Some other dishes we shared were eggplant in a brown sauce, chicken w/ cashew nuts, fresh sautéed corn, sweet and sour pork, Chinese veggies and rice. There was another dish that was unlike anything we've ever had; fried cubes of cava or sweet potato covered in a clear shell of a sugar like substance.  It took much effort to free a piece from the mound and once detached long strands of sugar stretched from the plate (and for some) two feet making it a challenge to not get caught in the very sticky web.  It was a crazy dish that I thought would have been best served as a dessert.  I didn't understand how it would work with savory dishes but the Chinese apparently think otherwise.  I was very happy to have the chance to try it.  The meal with beer and a small bottle of Chinese rice wine was about $12 for both of us.  An amazing value!       
  Dinner was fabulous, and we were all in the mood to celebrate.  We found our way to Bar Street, where we popped into a tourist trap called O'Henry's.  The whole group sat together in the rear of the bar along wooden tables on rickety chairs.  Before our second round of Tsing Tao's and Carlsberg Chills, a live band made their way onto the makeshift stage in the front room.  Beatles covers!!  We sang along to the music and waved our beers, and for just a second I felt like I was back in Britain.  Until, of course, I had to use the restroom.  It was a decent "hole in the floor", though. 
  All Chinese toilets cannot be placed into the same category.  There are levels of "holes in the floor".  What makes a high class hole in the floor?  1.  toilet paper (practically no bathrooms in China offer you the highly sought-after commodity).  2. waste basket (since paper should never be flushed down hole, these are VERY important).  3.  handle (a small metal bar provides stabilization while squatting).  4. and finally, and most importantly, a door (many bathrooms in China are set up trough style, with nothing more than a three foot barrier between you and your fellow squatters, and nothing hiding you from the front)
  On the way back from the restroom, I decided to sneak a peak at the band we had been enjoying for most of the evening.  The first surprise was that they were Chinese.  Their rendition of Paperback Writer was so dead-on, that I figured they had to be British.  The second surprise was that they were all facing the wall.  All four of them had their faces only inches from the wooden walls.  After our group played a horrific game of 'guess everyone's age', we knew it was time for bed.  We bid farewell to O'Henry's and crawled into our rock-hard bed for a wonderful night's sleep.
Day 31- Terra Cotta Warriors and a long-ass train ride...
  Our morning started with a stern talking-to from our group leader.  We left a broken bag on top of the garbage can of our room to signify that we no longer wanted it.  Apparently this is against Intrepid rules, and we were properly disciplined for it.  We left our bags at the Xi'an train station and all jumped on the bus to the Terra Cotta Warriors.  The endless bus ride came complete with a honking-enthusiast driver.  We were instructed that the going rate for a tour guide of the Warriors was 100 yuan.  We met a woman at the entrance who said that our group would have to split into two, or we would have to pay 200 yuan.  Phil and I argued that it was the same tour no matter how many people, and she reluctantly agreed to the 100 yuan fee.  (We are really getting good at this bargaining thing!)
  We were shocked at the entrance fee of 90 yuan per person, but our guide explained that this was the Eighth Wonder of the World.  Pit #1 was set up stadium style.  A huge domed roof covered the enormous site of thousands of dusty warriors, each with unique features.  Part of the area was stilled covered with dirt.  Our guide said that many of the warriors were still uncovered; excavation was at a standstill until new technology offered better methods.  The second and third pits were housed in buildings and were less impressive.  At the information center we watched a 360 degree movie about the history of the warriors.  It took something like 40 years to create all of the warriors which were placed in a tomb awaiting the body of the emperor.  The complete waste of resources and man-power used to create the tomb, along with other instances of oppression, led to an uprising and the tomb was destroyed and set on fire.  The tomb was left hidden until the 1970s when a farmer fell into a well and discovered a warrior head.  That same farmer spends his days signing books at the site.  We were able to catch a glimpse of him behind his enormous sunglasses in the information center.  I really wanted a terra cotta magnet, but they were 80 yuan at the gift shop.  On the way out, I bought a similar one for 5 yuan at a little stand.
  The bus driver decided to take the bumpy, unpaved back roads for the trip back to Xi'an.  We did find a broken-down bus along the way and loaded the stranded passengers onto our bus.  Back in town, we had some time before our overnight train, and we all went to Dico's (a chicken joint) for some grub.  The restaurant was set up McDonald's style, and offered all sorts of chicken sandwiches and wraps. My crispy chicken sandwich looked great until I bit into it and realized it was a horrible cut of chicken.  Dark meat and totally stringy, but at least they had A/C.  
  The supermarket was totally creepy.  It occupied the rear-portion of a clothing store.  As soon as you walked through the turnstile, you were followed through the isles.  There must have been forty people working just the floor of the store.  They would watch you down each isle, as super eerie music played over the blown speakers.  After the supermarket, we ran into the Bank of China to grab some cash from the ATM.  This time we were followed and watched by a military police officer.  They aren't very trusting in Xi'an.  I suppose it's fitting that the city is completely walled.
  The bathroom at the hotel (next to the train station where we stored our luggage) had the worst bathrooms that we have encountered this trip.  They were dirty, disgusting troughs which emitted smells that could not have been human.  Phil complained to the front desk staff who glared back at him with blank expressions on their faces.   I just waited to use the restroom on the train, which turned out quite nice.  The trick is to be the first one in there!  Our sleeping cube (on the train) was occupied by Me and Phil, Michelle and Dan, and Michelle and Mike (two other British couples).   Three Michelle's sleeping on top of one another!  We stayed up and talked for a bit, and when lights-out came, I decided to sleep in my own bed this time.  Our cube was the last one in the car, and the lights from the restroom area between trains made it difficult to sleep.  What made it even worse was a man who decided to read a magazine right next to where I was sleeping.  I flipped up my sleeping mask to see him starring at me no more than a couple of feet away.  I quickly jumped up and dove onto Phil's bed, and showed him our peeping friend.  A few minutes later, the man left and I returned to my bunk.   
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