After days of being in rural China, we wake up in a city with snarling traffic, shimmering heat, and waves of people. It’s a shock to our system, but one with potentially great rewards.
Xi’an is the ancient capital of China and has tombs, museums, artifacts and history as deep as any other city in China, save probably Beijing. We have three days here and we’ll need most of it to see what Xi’an has to offer.
An ancient civilization
Xi’an is one of the oldest areas of civilization in the world. There are human remains nearby that are 500,000 years old. It was already a major city in the early feudal dynasties, before the first emperor.
But it was the first Emporer, Qin Shi Huang, and the successive imperial dynasties, powered by the economies of the silk road that really established it as a political and cultural center.
Xi’an is like Luxor, Athens or Rome, the capital of an ancient and powerful civilization that has left countelss artifacts from tombs and preserved buildings for us to see today.
And like those cities, Xi’an is filled with tourists and tourist traps. Most people do tours in Xi’an. There are so many things to see that it’s more cost-effective to jump on a bus for $30 than hire a driver for the day. But tours just aren’t our style, even if they are effective, because we need to be able to abort any plan and head back to the hotel if kids have a meltdown.
A ‘real’ Chinese hotel
Our hotel, ‘Ci’en’ is misrepresented in Trip Advisor as a bed and breakfast. It’s a big Chinese hotel, lol. But it’s still a good deal – about $75 bucks a night, which is cheap for Xi’an. And it has cold AC and ample hot water, (although the internet is lousy.) It is, as a few others have said on the forums, a very Chinese place. I had to use my phrasebook for simple things like ‘towel’ and ‘room safe.’
We have a weird room. The light switch for one part of the room is labeled ‘Bar,’ although we don’t see a bar anywhere. There are condoms for sale in the bathroom. And it has a raised section of the room with a big poker (or dice) table, complete with 1970’s style standing ashtrays and high-back leather chairs. This looks like some kind of swinger suite for apres-disco partying.
They offer a Chinese breakfast for about $3, and it includes a cup of instant coffee. The buffet has Chinese salads and mystery meat, but there are also hard boiled eggs, some tasty fried rice, toast and watermelon, which we eat hungrily because we missed dinner last night. One of the trip advisor forum posts said “Eat early, hungry wolves!” and I see what they mean. The steam tables are decimated and it’s only 8:30am.
The old city of Xi’an
The hotel is located near the Big Goose Pagoda, which is Xi’an’s most famous landmark. Surrounding the pagoda is a pedestrian mall and a few parks. There are places to eat everywhere and lots of overpriced trinkets and bottled water (It’s still only 50 cents for a half liter, but it bugs me that it costs that much.)
The taxi lets us off at the bell tower, which, with it’s cousin the drum tower (pictured far above) sounded the beginning and end of each day. We walk toward the Muslim quarter, our first of several destinations today. Annoyingly, the girls already begin to complain. Trish seems a little cranky. I guess I am too. This might prove to be a hard day.
The Muslim quarter has narrow streets lined with stall after stall of stores selling peanut cake, cold noodles with sesame sauce, dates, freshly roasted nuts and tourist junk. The girls like how they roast the walnuts in propane-fueled buckets filled with hot sand.
The Great Mosque
We are searching for the Great Mosque of Xi’an, a still-functioning mosque that was built in 741. It’s used by the Hui people, who are one of the recognized ethnic minorities of China. The Hui are mostly descended from silk road traders from Persia and Central Asia who brought Islam with them, but inter-married with Han Chinese and stayed here. They still practice Islam but in all other respects are Chinese, with the big exception of rejecting pork, which is the central meat of Chinese food.
Down an unmarked alley 200 yards we trudge, blindly hoping this is the right way. It’s not that easy to find the Mosque, but the directions turn out to be right, and the ticket booth is around the corner – $2 each.
The Mosque is most unique for being almost entirely of Chinese architecture. It opens with a Chinese spirit wall, has traditional gardens and gates that are all distinctly Chinese. Even the Minaret is in the form of a Chinese Pagoda.
But the functional elements are Islamic. Hui men in white caps come in and out of a prayer room that is off-limits to us. Arabic writing is chiseled in stone, carved on wood and painted on walls. It’s a peaceful and elegant spot, especially compared to the furious pace of the narrow streets just outside the gate.
Unfortunately the girls are unable to enjoy it. Both Emma and Lily mope around and want to know when we are leaving. Argh, come on kids! We just barely started our day and have a lot more things to do and see. We still have to do the folk house, museum and a bike ride on the city walls today. It’s only 11am.
I promise a McDonalds lunch as motivation. That brightens them for a moment, but then the start asking every five minutes “When are we going to McDonalds?” Sigh.
Art at the Folk House
Nearby the Mosque is a recreated Ming dynasty courtyard home of a merchant. The fee ($3 each) is worth the chance to look around, although the rooms feel a little sparse and incomplete. There are a few antiques like a very old cart that are amazing.
Perhaps we should have sprung for the tea ceremony or puppet show, but I know we have to shorten our day and get these girls to McDonalds asap, so we skip them. We do however spend some time purchasing some art. The folk house is owned by a local artist collective and the original paintings are all very affordable and high quality compared to the crap that is sold on the street.
We liked and bought the unusual piece (pictured) although you can get lots of dragons, and other classically styled Chinese paintings if you are looking for something traditional. Lily bursts out crying because we won’t buy her a $30 painting of a dog. Sigh. This day isn’t going so well.
Real sesame noodles
If you’ve read our blog before, you know that we don’t travel for the food. Lily is a good eater, but Emma likes only the simplest things, and Trish has an unadventurous palate. But I can’t leave the Muslim Quarter without sampling some of the food so I make them wait while I pick up some street food.
There are lots of specialties here including mutton soup and grilled meats. But what I really want is the cold noodles with sesame sauce made with a beanthread noodle. I lived on noodles and sesame sauce in NYC as a college kid, and want to taste the original. I pick a restaurant that has a lot of Chinese in it already. Surprisingly the server speaks English. “Spicy?” “Yes!” I say enthusiastically. It comes not so spicy, but it’s still pretty damn good. It makes me happy.
Problem solved, problem found.
On the walk back we have some good luck and bad. We spot a store advertising ‘Nikon’ in a window, and it turns out to be a well stocked camera and electronics store. It even has our model camera, the one that broke a few days ago! We love the Lumix DX-5 (and it’s predecessors) because of the wide angle and fast lens. It’s great luck that we found one so easily.
But it’s almost $200 more than it would have cost in the states. I try weakly to get the price down, but it doesn’t work. Still, it’s worth the money. We can’t go this whole trip with just our phone cameras.
While I’m purchasing the camera, which takes a while because they unpackage it in front of me, set the menu to English and attach the straps, I get a call from Hong Kong. It’s travelzen.com, the online airline ticket service through which we bought our domestic China flights.
A woman with halting, but accurate, English tells me that our flight to Dunhuang in two days is cancelled. Oh shit, I think. There are not a lot of flights to Dunhuang and we don’t have time to give. Fortunately she says there is another flight a little later that day and asks if we want to switch. Yes, of course we do. She hangs up and says she’ll call back later.
Oreo Cookies are Chinese food?
Twenty minutes later, I’m in McDonalds ordering a hamburger. The kids are happy though, and they eat hungrily. The Oreo Mcflurrys are a real hit. But even with their renewed energy, I don’t sense that we can do much more. It’s already 3pm, anyway. The distances in the old city are much farther than I imagined.
Trish and I decide to call it quits for today, and head back to the room. Travelzen.com calls back and says that what we need to do is buy new tickets, and then they will ‘apply’ for a refund. My heart sinks a little. ‘Applying’ for a refund from a Chinese airline? I’m not optimistic about getting my $800 back, but so far Travelzen.com has been very good, so I do what they say and hope for the best.
Chinese food is Chinese food.
Those sesame noodles whet my appetite. I want a good Chinese meal. Most of the food we have eaten so far on this trip is either Chinese cooked for Westerners, bad Chinese, or western food cooked by Chinese. The good Chinese food has evaded me. Fortunately right outside our restaurant is one of a small chain of restaurants called ‘First noodle under the sun” It came reccomended by one of the guide books, so we try it.
There is no english here, but there is a picture menu and I order enough for 8 people; Scallion pancakes, pork fried noodles, shrimp fried rice, black pepper beef and a whole fish in ‘special sauce’.
The wait staff hover around our table and touch the girls hair and skin. Lily gets really bothered by it and kind of frowns at them. I know it’s hard but I wish she would just put up with it a little better.
Emma is a little more accommodating of them. Unfortunately, their menu is not so accommodating of Emma. She orders white rice, and picks at it, but is clearly getting a tired of eating plain white rice.
The food is really great, well the beef and fish are, especially. The black pepper beef came a little oily, but is tender and the sauce is flavorful and unique, unlike the soy-garlic sauces that overwhelm Chinese-American food. The fish is fantastic but buried in dried red pepper, whole cumin seeds, black pepper corns and bay leaf like a thick crust, which is unpleasantly crunchy and strong.
I’m guessing that the right way to eat this is to peel back the skin and the spice crust and eat the fish underneath which is delicate. It’s a tasty dish, but Trish doesn’t like it much.
After dinner we get Baskin Robbins, a brand our kids have never heard of. I remember it being the best in the 1970’s, but I guess it lost to the premium ice creams of the 1980s. (Remember Frusen Gladje?) Emma orders blue rasberry sherbet, Lily rainbow. They say it’s the best they’ve ever had as I tuck them into bed.
Let’s hope we regroup and have a big day tomorrow.