But as I’ve discovered already,
But as it happened I was going to
It was good to be among my kind again, by which I mean fun-loving American dorks. There was much silliness throughout the trip, such as Nissa reading The Fellowship of the Ring aloud on the train, frequent quoting of Lost in Translation and an amazing English-learning video on the buses featuring chickens, and finding their souvenir statues of the Terracotta Warriors under my sheets every time I left the room for two minutes. They also had built up a number of amusing misadventures in
On Tuesday, the first full day we had together, we decided to go right for the Terracotta Warriors. As amazing as they are, we would later be glad to have gotten it “out of the way” on the first day, because seeing them on a holiday was an exercise in patience. First we took the 20+ minute bus to the train station, and discovered a massive line waiting just to get on the buses to the site, which was 90 minutes away. We spend an hour shuffling through the outdoor line, not quite what we had in mind after a night of drinking, which was highlighted only by our spotting of our “stunt doubles”, a group of three foreigners who were eerily like us (but goofier and less attractive), a la the scene from Spaceballs. When we entered the first pit of warriors at the site, there were so many people that we had to fight for spaces somewhere along the sides to get a decent look. Like so many of the world-famous sites I’ve been to, it was interesting and well worth seeing, but underwhelming due to the number of tourists murmuring around us and the number of pictures I’ve already seen of it, and not the highlight of the trip.
When we got back it was too late to see any other tourist sites, so we spent the evening wandering the Muslim quarter, a series of narrow back-streets brimming with people and street-food stalls. My friends were enthusiastic about trying a vaguely noodle-esque dish that would translate literally as “cold skin”, which even I didn’t finish. There were a number of meat and sweet dishes that I haven’t seen anywhere else, and we sidled along into a chaotic kebab restaurant while trying to ignore the threatening shouts of “beef! beef! beef!” going on around us. Back at the hostel bar we were excited to spy the Stunt Doubles over at the next table, but in the end we were too shy to do anything but talk about them while stealing glances in their direction, and attempt to the end the night in a more quiet and dignified fashion than on our first excitable night.
For Wednesday we plotted what would soon become known as the
After passing through the market of fake antiques outside the temple, we headed back into the depths of the Muslim Quarter to visit the Great Mosque. Our cab driver was refreshingly honest, asking immediately if I could help because he didn’t know where it was. I showed him the inadequate guidebook map I had, but he still stopped to ask about three people where it was when we got close. In the alley before the entrance to the mosque, there was a gauntlet of souvenir stalls to pass through, which I didn’t take much notice of until I saw the Little Red Book. The Little Red Book is the infamous collection of Mao Zedong’s sayings that served as the Bible of China’s youth during the Cultural Revolution, and I’ve always been curious about what it actually says. I knocked down the inflated asking price and we each picked up a copy. Amusingly, the first page of each shiny plastic book proclaims “First Edition, 1966”. I went through it in the hostel room later that night, looking for inflammatory statements about “capitalist roaders” and the “running dogs” of capitalism, but its defining characteristic soon proved to be that it’s absolutely, staggeringly boring. To amuse ourselves we had a face-off between the Little Red Book and The Brothers Karamazov, which I for some reason brought for “light” reading on the bus. Nissa read from Mao and I read from Dostoevsky on the same page of each book to see which was more interesting, and I have to say me and the Brothers K won a fairly handy victory.
The Great Mosque of Xi’an is so Chinese in character that except for the scattered Arabic, we might never have known it was Islamic had we randomly stumbled upon it. The buildings are all in the sloped-roof style of ancient Chinese architecture, and it was unlike any of the few mosques I’ve yet seen. Our timing was not as good this time, and we were surrounded by a French tour group and a number of other tourists. It was still a very peaceful and enjoyable spot, but in the end it didn’t leave as deep an impression as the Temple of Eight Immortals.
Next on the agenda was the Forest of Steles Museum, the heaviest book collection in the world. It’s a collection of numerous ancient Chinese classics preserved in their entirety on massive stone slabs, which are a sight to see even when you have no idea what the characters mean. On the way we passed a man proudly standing behind his incredibly long calligraphy scroll, who shouted to us in English “look at my work! I’m the best in
The Big Wild Goose Pagoda, however, greeted us in grand fashion. There was a fancy water fountain show with accompanying music, and four elaborately dressed woman on horseback strolled the grounds for no apparent reason. We finished the walk to the pagoda entrance itself around 6:30pm – the exact time the gates closed. However, we were happy enough to relax amongst the crowd of tourists and ponder the goings-on in the still-lit pagoda. As I mentioned even in a city with as many foreigners as Xi’an we are a constant curiosity, and one of the few things that will attract more attention than a foreigner in China is three of them sitting down together, tired and defenseless. Several groups of students asked Nissa, and only Nissa, to pose for pictures with them, while me and Stefanie stayed on the sidelines like high school losers. They gushed things like “you are very beautiful, can you take pictures with us??” but I’ll chalk it up to the novelty of her red hair rather than me and Stefanie being physically repulsive.
At this point, I ought to mention the pollution. Large Chinese cities are notoriously polluted, but at first I didn’t take much notice other than the eternally gray sky. However, as evening set on our
We did little that night, besides eat our only proper restaurant meal in Xi’an, catch sight of one of the better English t-shirts I’ve seen (“Friend with Privileges”, made all the funnier because of the certainty the Chinese girl didn’t properly understand it), and question our resolve in going to Hua Shan the next day. Hua Shan is one of the five sacred Taoist mountains in
Getting to the mountain was fairly straightforward, involving a train ride followed by a taxi ride to the site of the mountain itself. We were bemused to find on arrival that the fog was so thick we could not actually see the rather large mountain from the ticket center. As we waited on the long cable car line, I began to wonder if we were totally chickening out, and whether visiting a mountain without doing any climbing was a little silly. But when we boarded our car and began the swift climb over the deep valley, I was definitely on edge, and amused my companions with my epiphany that “actually, I forgot I’m a little afraid of heights”. However, Nissa was definitely more nervous, and the Chinese girl in the car with us was definitely more nervous than her, and making the least attempt to hide it. I quickly relaxed, and the ride was pretty amazing (though not even 10 minutes).
When we reached the top, it became obvious we had made the right decision about the cable car. That was only the first peak, still mobbed with tourists, and it would have been really disappointing to struggle for hours only to reach that point and not have the strength to get to higher and more secluded spots. Emboldened by the rare circumstance of being in the best shape of a group of people, I went on ahead of them towards the next peak. It was hard to tell when the path was going to end, and after about 45 or 50 minutes I paused to rest and see if the other two would show up. After a little while Nissa came along, but we had no idea where Stefanie was, so after a short wait we decided to see what was up ahead. It wasn’t much further, but the path unexpectedly went in two directions, so we followed the one that the most competent-looking Chinese people were choosing. We then had another choice of the “Ladder of Clouds” or the “
The most conspicuous part of the peak itself was the modest Taoist temple behind us. The girls had a fear the cable cars closed at 4pm and wanted me to double-check, so I figured who better to ask than a lonely Taoist priest at the top of a mountain. He seemed pretty confident they closed at 7pm, and invited me into the temple to have a look and a drink of water. I was more than happy to look around, but declined on the water – I’ll assume he didn’t realize the cup on offer had a used cigarette floating in the bottom. The focus of the temple was a statue of Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy that appears often in
I returned to my friends, and asked the silly question “would you like to look inside the Taoist temple?” As the three of us looked around, the priest gave me an explanation of our surroundings for several minutes, pretty much the only part of which was intelligible to me was at the end when he said “okay, now translate for them”. So I turned to my friends and said “well, I didn’t understand any of that but I’m supposed to translate for you, so I’m going to keep talking now and pretend like I’m giving a really intelligent explanation of Taoism. So what do you think he would be called in English, a priest? What about scribe? I like that word, I think I’ll call him a scribe…”, and so on.
Next, the priest offered my friends large candles wrapped in plastic, which they accepted with some confusion. I had a suspicion this would end with him asking for money but I figured I’d stay out of it. He had them perform a similar but slightly more involved set of bowing while facing in each direction before motioning for them to place their oversized incense sticks, trying to explain a few things to me with which I got as far as “good meaning”. He then motioned towards the donation box, and decided to leave out the guesswork – “they should each give 200 yuan”. 200 yuan was an absolutely outrageous amount of money. You can buy a new bicycle for 200 yuan. “Excuse me, how much did you say?” I asked. “200 yuan” he confirmed. “Why so much?” I said, a little irritated, and he said something about “good meaning”. So I turned to the girls and told them “well he says you should each give 200 yuan, but that’s totally ridiculous, so give whatever you want and cover your hand so he can’t see when you put it in the box”. To my list of unexpected accomplishments in
He was so pleased after their “donation” of what would have been probably more than he lives on in a month that he went further into his bag of Taoist tricks and decided to tell our fortunes. This involved shaking a topless, cylindrical container of sticks until one fell onto the floor. The sticks all had writing on them, and corresponded to pieces of paper that told one’s fortune. Stefanie went first, and apparently has a baby boy in her future. The fortunes were actually fairly lengthy, but I couldn’t catch much and wished dearly that there was a proper translator among us. Nissa was second, and can expect two children and a husband with money who sells jewelry. I went last, and all I understood was that I will get sick and I should be careful, possibly in 2008, though surely the rest of it was good. I had to wonder if my anti-climactic fortune was in any way related to my anti-climactic donation to the temple earlier.
Despite the communication barrier the priest seemed to more or less enjoy our company, and after the fortune-telling he asked us to sit and brought us hard-boiled eggs and moon cakes. Moon cakes are delicious Chinese sweets associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival, which was on October 6th this year and is when the moon is supposedly at its brightest. The eggs were simply random, and he only gave them to the girls. The few Chinese who ascended the
The path down the mountain was considerably quicker and easier than the way up, though we must have waited an hour in the line for the cable car. Me and Nissa were put in a separate car, and enjoyed our last spectacular mountain views while pretending to be totally unconcerned with the height. The day had been a resounding success. However… we still had to get back to
At the train station, I bought tickets for the next train to
It was now a question not of if the taxi driver would try to pull a little bit of nonsense, but just how much of it. He didn’t wait long – two minutes and thirty seconds into the grand journey, he pulled into a car repair shop and explained he needed to get his tire fixed. It took the promised five minutes, and we were back on our merry way – in the other direction, where he then stopped in front of a restaurant mere feet from where we started. He stopped and promptly went into the restaurant, while we envisioned him sitting down for a nice two-course dinner before we got going. He merely bought a beverage, and when he returned he cheerily explained it was his little brother’s restaurant. That’s wonderful – now get your ass to the highway. But I was certain he needed something else, and sure enough to pulled into a gas station about four minutes later, which I suppose we couldn’t protest too loudly if we planned on actually making it to
The problem was, he literally stopped when we got to
To our great disappointment the kitchen was closed and our cheesecake dreams were crushed, so we settled down at a table with our new friend Hans the beer. Feeling the need for a celebratory drink I suggested a round of shots of Jack Daniels, which each happened to cost approximately what I make in an hour, but were delicious. We didn’t begin the night until perhaps after 11pm, and before we knew it they were closing the hostel bar. A good 40 minutes before the closing time of 2am, the girl behind the counter came over to us and innocently but suggestively joked to me “wo zai zher shuijiao, hao ma? (I’m going to sleep right here, is that ok?)”, and we were too kind to deprive a sweet Chinese girl of sleep for the sake of alcohol consumption.
Knowing I had nothing scheduled for the next day besides lying down on a bus for 16 hours, and knowing it was the end of my time with two quite likeable friends who spoke really good English, I was up for keeping the night going. Nissa was of the same mind but Stefanie counted herself out, so the two of us went out in search of
The next morning, we perused the hostel breakfast menu and spied a grand American Breakfast, with eggs, sausage, toast, and the works. After finishing these off I jokingly suggested we also get the cheesecake we missed out on the previous night, but before I finished my sentence they were out of their seats and ordering three pieces. That was probably the best decision of the day. It was genuine cheesecake, impossible to find in
Stefanie and Nissa’s bus left a few hours before mine, so the fun ended at that point and we had to say our goodbyes in the hostel. I had accomplished everything I set out to do in
On the bus, I was quickly driven to a practically homicidal irritation by a mix of the aftermath of a funny lunch, a slight hangover, cramped conditions, and in particular the awful music blasting from my personal speaker on the ceiling, which was almost but not quite a foot above my head. However, I somehow fell asleep eventually and the return journey went considerably more smoothly than my trip to
I would later hear the tale of Nissa and Stefanie’s travel difficulties on the way home, which involved being tossed into a moving bus they almost missed and later being woken up and dumped on the side of the road at 1am near, but not that near, the bus station that was their destination. It’s difficult not to have a love-hate relationship with