China is, of course, a huge country with numerous major tourist attractions, and you can’t see many in just 13 days, although we have met a few other westerners in tour groups or with private guides who are making a go at it. For us, seeing the terra cotta warriors of Xi’an and the Great Wall were the two ‘must see’ cultural icons of China. We knew nothing about the city of Xi’an itself, we were flying in to see the warriors, and everything else would be gravy. What else did Xi’an have to offer? We were only going to be there for two days and three nights, so we would not need much to take up the other 1½ days we were not going to be seeing the warriors. As it turned out, we really enjoyed our time in Xi’an.
We went and saw the terra cotta warriors our first morning in Xi’an, which the boys are blogging about. We got back to the Ramada Bell Tower hotel in the afternoon and chilled for a few hours. The hotel concierge, David, who spoke excellent English, advised us to visit Huímín Jiē – the ‘Muslim street’ – located behind the Drum Tower. This was only a 5-minute walk from the hotel. The street is pedestrian only and about 500 meters long. We were glad that we decided to make this an evening visit because the street was lit up with small, colorful neon signs and strings of light bulbs, and light streamed out from the open front businesses. There were Muslim men in skullcaps and women with headscarves; this street was not just Muslim in name. Stores alternated between tourist knick-knack shops, restaurants, and food stores. The restaurants had food cooking on the sidewalks: meat skewers over charcoals, simmering pots of pigs trotters, savory pancakes, fresh sesame flatbread from round ovens. The food stores primary offerings were fresh roasted walnuts, dried dates and dried persimmons. Gigi could not resist buying some silk scarves for 10 yuan ($1.50) each and some bracelets made from jade beads for only 15 yuan each ($2.50). Xi’an is one of the ancient eastern terminus of the Silk Road, and I imagined that in some small way this street still provided a flavor of what the city might have felt like several hundred years ago – the smells of the roasting meat and walnuts, the shops selling silks and jades, the jostling in the narrow side lanes.
Dinnertime rolled around. Most of the restaurants looked a bit too ‘local’ for us on this street and we were discussing going back to the modern mall just one street over to look for a restaurant, but a sudden rain shower motivated us to go inside what looked to be one of the nicer restaurants. It had a menu with pictures so we could order. To our surprise, there were many vegetable plates offered. It is hard to get enough vegetables when eating in restaurants! Gigi and I ordered only vegetables, and the boys ordered noodle soup and soupy dumplings. The food was quite good, and cheap. We struck up a conversation with the only other westerners in the place, a father and son from Germany who are touring solo like us.
Outside afterwards, some Chinese ladies fawned over Justin. We don’t know if it is his light colored skin, his eyelids or nose, or the whole western facial package, but he, and Jordan too, get stopped by people who want to take their picture with them. They are polite and we just wonder how few Westerners these Chinese have seen in real life. Gigi and I do not get the same attention as the boys. Jordan’s ego was getting a boost from this attention while Justin just smiled sheepishly and wished they would go away.
Our second day in Xi’an was the ‘gravy’ day, and it turned out to be a very packed day. Xi’an has a 600-year-old rectangular stone wall encircling the old part of the city. You have to pay an entrance fee to get up on top of the wall. The wall is at least 10 meters high and wide enough on top for 3 car lanes. It is 13 kilometers in length. We rented bicycles and rode around the wall. This was a great activity for the boys to burn off some energy. There were barely any people on the wall because of the 40 yuan charge. It took us 90 minutes to ride once around. In Lucca, Italy, we had also ridden bikes on the city’s defensive walls. Those walls were as impressive at Xi’an’s, but much smaller in length, and much more crowded because it was free to go up on the wall in Lucca. After we descended the wall, we took a walk through an old brick building neighborhood close to the East Gate whose shops specialized in artist paintbrushes and paper. This looked to be the oldest preserved section of the city. Besides wondering at the diverse, and often huge, Chinese paintbrushes in the store windows, we were serenaded by songbirds in cages and street vendors playing round clay flutes that they were trying to sell.
That evening, we had a date to visit a local family’s home and go out to dinner with them. Jordan has a Chinese friend back in San Carlos whose parents were born in China. The mother, Sally, has been following Gigi’s Facebook page, and when she realized we were going to China she emailed Gigi with the offer of some contacts in China. One old high school friend of Sally’s was now living in Xi’an. This man’s wife answered our email, her husband was in Munich on business, but she would be delighted to invite us over. She has a 7-year-old son. They lived in the High Tech Development District of the city, which was a 20-minute taxi ride from our hotel. Just getting a taxi turned out to be a 30-minute ordeal, but we found one and made it out to her neighborhood. Looking at all the high rise apartments, we really did not think we would find her building, let alone her apartment, but right when we got out of the taxi, Grace came running over to us. She had been waiting out on the street for us for 40 minutes. Of course, we were easy to spot.
Grace took us into her neighborhood. She said 10,000 families lived in this neighborhood of high-rise apartments. First thing that struck me was that the entrance was gated and guarded. How very un-socialist, I thought, this is a gated community like we have back home. Once inside, the exterior grey bleakness of all the buildings faded to the background. Between the buildings were meandering pedestrian lanes in a park-like setting. Lots of kids were laughing and playing, the most we had seen since being in China. Grace’s apartment was on the 26th floor. When we got inside we were greeted by her son, his friend, and his friend’s mother, Abbey. Wow, 4 boys in one little condo. Justin immediately started playing with the boys who were building with plastic train tracks. Grace and Abbey both spoke English quite well. Abbey is a document translater who studied English at University. We chatted for a while about California, our trip, condo prices in Xi’an and air pollution. The boys got to hold and pet the pygmy hamster.
We went to a local restaurant for dinner and found that Grace had reserved a private room for us. Abbey’s husband joined us for dinner as he had just gotten off work (He is the editor of the local newspaper and wants to interview us for an article.) Almost immediately the food started to arrive. We stuffed ourselves on Chinese food, some of which we recognized from restaurants at home. One dish was wok-fried Chinese yams. We also had wok fried-lotus root with bacon. We appreciated, however, the different variety of ingredients from California Chinese food and the complete lack of cornstarch that is so commonly added to the sauces of the dishes at home. We were complimented on our proficiency with chopsticks. Jordan and Justin went wild on the soupy dumplings. Our group of 9 people polished off 60 dumplings, a mixture of beef, pork and shrimp, which was 10 separate orders. We had brought a chocolate mousse cake from the hotel as a gift, and we ate it for dessert. Our hosts, who we had just met, refused to let us pay our share of the meal. That was quite unexpected, and we thanked them and told them we would repay the courtesy when they come to visit California. It might happen. Grace and her husband have vacationed in California once already.
Our third and final morning in Xi’an was getting up and out of the hotel and off to the airport. When we had arrived we had taken a taxi ride from the airport. This was almost an hour drive. To go back, we took an airport shuttle bus whose city stop was a 10-minute walk from our hotel. We were the only Westerners on the bus. It was an easy trip and cost half the price of the taxi. Oh, what a difference a few days makes in a place. We were travelling like the locals.
Xi’an is a huge city, but we got a good feel for the place after only a few days. We were ready to leave, but also happy that we did not simply come for the terra cotta warriors.