Wednesday, November 13, 2013

October 25, Xi'an

The air quality here today was 370, where 300 – 500 is hazardous, the top level. The worst yet. The air smells acrid and buildings not very far away are hard to see in the haze. Here, for example, was the view from the western Xi'an city wall gate:

I am wearing masks every day, including right now. Technically hotels are non-smoking areas but people here smoke and this room smells of smoke, so I've opened the windows. I don't know which is worse.

This morning we arrived in Xi'an at 8 AM on the overnight train. After breakfast we had a marvelous tai chi demonstration and lesson. This is the real advantage of a tour, that you get to do things like this and visit the Peking Opera School. Any damned fool can go to see the Great Wall for themselves.

The only other advantage, as far as I can see, is that it is so much easier to have someone make all the arrangements for you, transport you everywhere, and deal with luggage transfers.

There are huge disadvantages to a tour which I find harder to deal with every day. First and foremost is being led like sheep: everything in me rebels against this. There are people who don't mind it and in fact there is one man in my group who seems to experience the world through his camera lens. Sometimes he even holds it in front of him as he walks. I need to look at something for a fair amount of time to absorb it, and only then does it occur to me to wonder if it is worth a picture, and last I need to figure out if I can take a good picture. By then the group is 50 yards past me, and as I don't want to be the source of constant irritation I move on before I am ready. It is a regular and cumulative frustration. And of course the other huge disadvantage is that the tour insulates you from people. There is just no way to fall into a meaningful conversation with a Chinese person when you are surrounded by Americans in a hurry.

The western gate of the city wall was the site of some really fascinating history of the Silk Road. This place in Xi'an was the eastern terminus for trade routes that went to Lhasa, New Delhi, Jerusalem, Cairo and Alexandria, Rome and Venice, Istanbul, Baghdad, Islamabad, and other places starting about 200 BCE. It stretched over 4,000 miles, and the journey had to be multi-generational – it took so long it was not possible for a person to go and return in one lifetime, so a father would take his son to complete it. The city wall itself was quite something.  Built about 650 years ago in the Ming dynasty, the fortifications around the city of Xi'an consisted of a moat and then two concentric walls of about 60 feet high and 60 feet thick. All that work and expense, and Xi'an was never attacked in that way. Apparently schoolchildren visit the Xi'an western gate the way Israeli schoolchildren visit Masada.

This is an astonishing civilization, and Xi'an is definitely the place to learn it. The city was the capital of China for several of the dynasties they've had since – get this – 2100 BCE. Mike gave us a quick history handout, of which this is the beginning:

Xia dynasty, 21st - 16th centuries BCE (of course the handout said BC): first Chinese state evolves, silk produced, calendar devised

Shang dynasty, 16th - 11th centuries BCE: written language developed, bronze is cast

Zhou dynasty, 11th - 5th centuries BCE: Confucius and Lao-Tse, the development of printing, poetry and mathematics

Several short dynasties, 5th - 3rd centuries BCE: navigational compass invented, iron tools in use

Qin dynasty, 221 – 206 BCE: Great Wall was built, weights and measures standardized

Han dynasty, 206 BCE – 220 CE: Buddhism is introduced, paper invented, currency standardized

This is incredible. Even living in Mexico we have nothing like this. No other country even comes close. And today I learned the origin of the word “China.” It's from the Qin dynasty: qin is pronounced “chin.”

After this was the Shaanxi (Xi'an's province) Historical Museum, at which I saw some pottery made in 6,000 BCE – amazing to think of hands 8,000 years ago making the bowl my eyes are seeing now. How I would love to know what that person's life was like! But it is impossible for me to enjoy a museum in this country. When we have a blockbuster museum exhibit in the US they sell timed entry tickets and even so there is a horrendous crush. That is what it is like in every single public place here. The public transportation companies even employ people to push people onto buses and subways to fit more of them in. I mean this literally. I looked at what I could and then went outside to sit in the polluted air, which was an improvement.

Driving through the streets to dinner, I saw this is another prosperous city: Gucci, Armani, Lamborghini stores. Mike, who lives in Xi'an, says (how does he know this?) 190 Lamborghini cars were sold last year. There's also a substantial American presence in the form of Starbucks, KFC (which Mike calls Kung Fu Chicken and I think I will too for the rest of my life), Haagen Dazs ice cream, and naturally McDonalds. Even Motel 6 and Walmart. Very dissonant to see these things on a street filled with huge Chinese characters in red neon letters.

Finally, dinner: Mongolian Hot Pot, a Xi'an specialty. Here you are given a boiling pot of chicken soup in which you cook various things -- meat, vegetables, thin potato slices, tofu, noodles, and even an egg (comes out poached) before dipping them in a sauce you have concocted from more than a dozen ingredients. The boiling soup is in the metal container.

It's a huge amount of trouble to go to, especially with chopsticks. If you are impatient, as I am, you say the hell with this before you've had enough to eat. Have you been to a Mongolian Grill restaurant in the United States? Now I know why they do it on the grill instead.

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