Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

[travel] Xi'an day 4, the day that was

Yesterday began with awakening aboard the train. I'd slept well, somewhat to my surprise. After a stumble to the scary little bathroom, I took my laptop and sat on the jumpseat in the corridor and typed up the previous day's notes for bloggy goodness. It was still pitch black outside, so I wasn't missing much.

The train slowly came to life. Chinese kept shouldering past me with occasional murmurs of "dwei bu qi." I had a long talk a Japanese-American passenger from Monterey City, CA, who used to live in the Portland suburb of Lake Oswego — just across the river from my Portland suburb of Milwaukie. Small world, not wanting to paint, etc. He was born in a California internment camp during WWII, and now lives in the first American city to have a majority Asian population. Interesting guy, interesting life.

Eventually the_child popped up, followed by the rest of the family. I'd wrapped the typing, so we engaged in the time-honored practice of staring out the window and taking useless, blurry photographs. The countryside just after dawn was steeply hilled with canyon cuts, out of what looked like a quarter mile or more of vertical depth of clay. Lots of sheer faces, peppered with tunnels or enlarged caves apparently used for storage, barns and possibly living space. Tomb sweeping day had passed recently, so we saw many individual tombs on hillsides, as well as occasional cemeteries, with the marble headstones gleaming, surrounded by fading banners and arrangments of paper flowers.

Lots of railway detail, too, of course. Maintenance of way trains, other passenger rail, industrial complexes (some abandoned), engine yards. A couple of collieries.

Eventually we rolled into Xi'an, a mid-sized Chinese city of only eight million people. When it was Chang'an, it was (several different times) a capital of China, and so Xi'an is one of the most popular destinations for domestic tourists, in addition to foreign tourists being drawn to the terracotta armies. The train station was much less fancy than Beijing, but clean and well-organized. Except for the escalator being out and us having to hump a great deal of luggage down a lengthy flight of stairs to the pedestrian tunnel under the trackway.

Our local guide met us outside. We walked past the KFC and McDonald's in the street before the station to reach our van, which took us to the Aurum International Hotel. Our hotel is inside the old city, within the restored wall, but a section of unrestored wall is immediately adjacent to the hotel building, and it's fascinating to look at. We made the breakfast service right before they closed down for yet another eccentric buffet, which was probably somewhat better than what we'd had in Beijing.

To the rooms for showers and some downtime, then we were off to the Grand Mosque of Xi'an. It wasn't a long drive, but we had an interesting walk through the market district surrounding the mosque. This market seems to cater to a mix of foreigners and locals, judging by the food stalls and merchandise.



Eventually we made our way through the caged birds, the rams' heads, the dried fruit, the endless supplies of kitsch, and into the Grand Mosque. It's a fascinating place. This is the home of Islam in China, brought here in the first millenium by traders from the Silk Road. As such, the sense of being at a cultural crossroads is right out in front.

As our guide explained, the religion came to China, but Islamic architecture did not come with it. So when the Grand Mosque was first built in the eighth century, they followed the traditional Chinese architecture for temples, modified to meet Islam's precepts. You wouldn't notice at a casual glance that this is a mosque, until you realize how many of the inscriptions are in Arabic, and that there are no human figures among the art and decoration. To Western eyes, this is a very curious fusion of two cultures we normally perceive as utterly distinct.


It's a large, elaborate compound which survived the Cultural Revolution almost entirely intact. A series of courtyards open to the actual central sanctuary. (That can't be the right word, but I'm not sure what you call the relevant room in a mosque.) Large marble tablets inscribed in Chinese and Arabic are spread around the whole area, some of them balanced on the backs of stone turtles. A number of the slabs and incidental sculptures seemed to have been salvaged from elsewhere, giving the whole place the air of a formal garden gone to some neglect.

As the Grand Mosque is still an active mosque, some areas were off limits, and some photography was forbidden. Still, I got some great shots, and when Flickr is more readily available to me, will inflict them on my blog.

On the way out, we passed back through the market. Souvenirs were shopped for, including pearls from an alleyside stall for calendula_witch, as well as some Mao geegaws for general gifting, and a small box of Chinese moveable type for myself.

After the Grand Mosque and the market, we stopped for lunch at a dumpling restaurant. (ie, potstickers.) Xi'an is famous for its dumpling, and I think I ate sixteen different kinds. The little shells were crafted according to what they held, so the duck dumplings were little ducks, the peanut-and-lotus-flower dumplings were little lotus flowers, and so forth. I'm afraid I'm a bit of a Philistine, as I still like best the pork-and-cabbage dumpling, Mark I, which is generally sold in the United States. We culminated with dumpling soup (wonton soup) which was pretty good.

From lunch we went to an art gallery. There we received an interesting talk on Chinese folk art — "farmer paintings" — and a tour of some contemporary paintings. This was followed by a calligraphy demonstration. That was followed by the gallery folks allowing the_child to try her hand with the rice paper and brushes. She was taught how to write her name in Chinese (pinyin: Hu Qiu Ju), and given some general lessons in the topic. It was sweet and fun, and Mother of the Child bought a lovely Chinese watercolor of cranes in an autumn sky.

From there we went to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. This is the home of Buddhism in China, which was brought back from India by the first Chinese monk, Xuanzang. The pagoda dates from 652, though it was later rebuilt. Originally it was a library where the scrolls and books of Chinese Buddhism were kpet. For a very long time the pagoda stood abandoned out in the countryside amid fields, but in recent years as the city grew around it, the government has rebuilt a temple and park complex around it.

The complex was attractive, but the central feature was of course the pagoda itself. the_child and I paid the extra fee to climb to the top, within. The entrance is fire scarred and battle damaged, and the walls very thick — they call this place a temple, but I'd say it was a vertical fortress. The interior has obviously been completely rebuilt in recent years, with each level having some shrine or exhibit about Buddhism. The view from the top was impressive, though very obscured by the everpresent smog. The climb was impressive as well. I was very glad I'd been doing hill work in San Francisco lately.

After we came back down, the group of was walked the temple grounds some more, then finally headed back to the Aurum. We had an early dinner in the Western restaurant, for a change, though my club sandwich was easily as eccentric as the breakfast buffets. It included a fried egg and sliced cucumbers in addition to the more usual ingredients, and the cheese had been made by someone who'd read about cheese in a book somewhere once but hadn't actually tried it themselves before going into the dairy business. One does not expect cheese in China, so this was unsurprising.

After that, I unloaded the camera and sacked out early. Today we're off to a jade carving demonstration, then out to see the terracotta armies. Back in town this evening, we'll be taken to a dinner theatre for an exhibit of Tang dynasty music and dance. Tomorrow morning we're off to Chengdu to see pandas.

As for today, I guess I observed Easter Sunday by going to the heart of both Islam and Buddhism in China. I'm sure there's a moral in there somewhere.

Originally published at jlake.com.

Tags: calendula, child, china, family, photos, travel

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