Facing my terra cotta demons

I confess: I was very happy to leave Beijing. For a while I thought I just preferred Taiwan to China, but I really fell in love with Nanjing. Then I thought I had a weakness for Nationalist Chinese strongholds, but I adore Shanghai, Guangzhou and Suzhou. Then I thought perhaps it was a North/South thing, and I just prefer the ‘nanfang’ (South) – but I delighted in everything about Xi’an. Now I’ve finally realized that elaborate explanations are totally unnecessary: I just hate Beijing.

I hate the broad streets that can only be crossed with tunnels and bridges that are clogged with chaotic traffic and totally anti-pedestrian. I hate that no matter if you’re going 6 blocks or 6 miles by bus, cab, subway, bike or foot, it takes at least an hour to get there. At least. I hate that it must have one of the only subway systems in the world where there is no automatic ticketing system – every time you ride, you have to queue in front of a window for a ticket, then hand it seconds later to a young woman in a smart uniform and pillbox hat. That’s fine at off-hours, but at rush hour it is chaotic and time-consuming.

The Beijing subway, incidentally, has three lines, named Line 1, Line 2, and Line 13. (No word yet on lines 3 through 12, though I’ve heard rumors that there is a master plan and some of them will be open by the 2008 Olympics, but the ones that open will also be random, such as lines 4, 8 and 11.)

I hate the fact that downtown Beijing ‘night markets’ are neat and orderly rows of identically decorated stalls with official registration numbers and two wandering policemen for each stall. Actually, I just hate the sheer number of policemen or military guys you see on patrol in general – generally one for every three people walking the streets (my distaste for the police might have been related to residual guilt for being unregistered, but still).

I hate the fact that any time you walk down the street in Beijing, an art student tries to sell you a painting because you’re a foreigner. I totally grant that my bad experience there could be related to the fact that I lived so close to the tourist areas, so I couldn’t walk out the door without having an extended conversation with someone on why I didn’t want to buy postcards. Not just that I don’t want to, but why. They always required reasons. Once I was almost talked into a watch because I had trouble making a case for why I didn’t need one. Leaving Beijing did not hurt me, not at all.

The day I left, I got into a cab first thing in the morning and spent the next hour stuck in fabulous Beijing traffic. When we’d finally gotten out of the mess of the ring roads and out onto the Airport Expressway, I had an experience that I defy anyone who’s ever been to China to try to match – something so unexpected and unbelievable that I doubt that many of you will really have much faith in my account. But I will swear on anything you put before me that it did, in fact, occur.

What happened was this: on an open road with light traffic, my cab was the slowest vehicle on the road. What’s more, we did not change lanes once. Not once! I almost don’t believe it myself, and I lived it.

Beijing cab drivers, well, really any cab drivers in China, but especially in Beijing, are notorious road racers. They swing from the right ditch to the lanes intended for opposing traffic (minor detail) and back again, dodging trucks, buses and bicycles at neck-breaking speeds, covering at least twice the distance that they would if they had merely traveled in a straight line. They speed even when they can see the red light and traffic stopped ahead, causing passengers in the seatbelt-less back seats frequent whiplash. I don’t care how fast you’re going or what you’re driving – and that includes any vehicle currently on the NASCAR circuit – a Beijing cabbie will pass you, and without breaking a sweat or missing a word of his blasting talk radio show. Failing to pass everyone between you and your destination at least once is, it seems, a colossal loss of face. I have no idea what was wrong with my driver on Tuesday, but clearly it must have been catastrophic, because even the airport bus managed to lumber past us and leave us in the dust. Even I, as passenger, felt the shame of it all (only shame, thankfully, as I was in no danger of missing my flight).

On to my two day ‘vacation’ in Xi’an. For the curious, the name of the city is spelled with an apostrophe to indicate that it is made up of two characters, Xi and An, a two syllable word, as opposed to being one character with the pinyin Xian, which is pronounced as a single syllable. Apostrophes are used when there are multiple options presented by the pinyin. Another example is the ancient name of the city, Chang’an, in which case the apostrophe indicates that the name is made up of Chang and An, not Chan and Gan, which are also possibilities if all you see are the letters.

Pinyin is not a perfect – or even great – system for writing Chinese because it repeats too much – even with tone marks, there are often a wealth of possible characters with different meanings to choose from. Even as a stand-in for the characters it presents problems: Xi’an is in Shaanxi province. The proper romanization for Shaanxi is actually Shanxi, but there already is a Shanxi province – the names are different in characters, but the romanization doesn’t reflect that, so the “a” had to be added to distinguish between them. Some foreigners misunderstand this, and amusingly try to say the two names to reflect what they think is a pronunciation difference, talking about Shanxi and Shaaaaaaaaaaaanxi provinces.

Xi’an is where the emperor that united China in the Qin dynasty (think “Hero,” if anyone saw the Jet Li flick last year) is entombed, and it is the site of the famous terra cotta army. In addition to these 2000-plus year old relics, Xi’an (as Chang’an) was the capital of China under the Tang dynasty, and in this era, was the eastern terminus of the famous Silk Road connecting the Middle East with China and opening up a flourishing trade between the two.

As a result of this history, Xi’an still has a large Muslim population, and houses the largest and oldest mosque in China. It’s also one of very few major Chinese cities that has a standing city wall; once, most large Chinese cities had outer walls as fortifications, but these were declared rightist, decadent, and counter-revolutionary during the Cultural Revolution and many were destroyed (as were many priceless and now nonexistent relics of China’s past). Some, admittedly, particularly those more than a thousand years old, were in fact crumbling before the Cultural Revolution swept in to deal the death blows. But those that survived the Taiping, the Opium Wars, the Boxers, the Japanese, and the Communist Revolution were doing all right, largely because the brick makers (like those involved in the building of the Great Wall) had to put their names on their bricks, so if problems developed they, or perhaps one of their descendents, could be executed in punishment. Say what you will, the system led to excellent construction standards.

In Xi’an the walls contain so much history even the Red Guards didn’t care to bring them down, and in fact, they have been under pretty much constant restoration in the last decade or two. The combination of these things also means that the economy of Xi’an is quite dependent on its flourishing tourist trade – I think 90% of the people on my plane were foreign tour groups.

I arrived in Xi’an at midday, found my hotel, and after a cup of tea, took off for the Shaanxi Province History Museum. The museum is quite famous, or so they told me at the door when I paid for my ticket, as one of the finest collections of ancient Chinese relics in the world (for those who’ve followed my Chinese museum adventures from the very beginning, yes, this is code for “a bunch of pots”) (but they were awfully nice pots). The weather in Xi’an was just a bit warmer than Beijing, around 103, so the museum seemed like a good plan.

After the museum, however, I looked over the map and realized that the Big Goose Pagoda (I’m actually still not sure why it is named that, other than to distinguish it from the Small Goose Pagoda a few blocks away) was nearby, so I wandered over there. Never one to reach a pagoda and not climb it, I trekked up the seven stories almost all alone (climbing pagodas apparently not being a popular pastime on stiflingly hot afternoons). By the time I got to the top, I wondered if the Cooked Goose Pagoda wouldn’t be a better name for it (sorry, couldn’t resist).

The pagoda was originally built in 684 AD, which is a new personal best for ancient pagoda climbing (my previous record being the 1005-year-old one in Suzhou). Sweaty and wilting, I returned to my hotel. I’d been back in my room for about ten minutes when my friend’s brother-in-law and his wife came for me.

This is standard Chinese etiquette – I know someone who knows someone who’s in the city I’m in, so they take charge of showing me a good time while I’m there. I’ve never actually met my friend’s wife, but her brother spent two days taking me around and buying me dinners. They were the nicest people ever and they made my trip to their city perfect.

First, they brought me to the Muslim quarter for some proper night market snacks and a “light” dinner (it was important to keep it light, they noted, because we would eat again later; overfeeding foreigners in my experience is also a very Chinese thing – they ordered us three dishes apiece which did not exactly fit my own definition of light). From there we went back down to the Big Goose Pagoda to wander around and wait for the fountain and light show at the plaza near there. As we were walking toward the pagoda, my friend asked if I knew its significance. I confessed my ignorance. He then asked if I was familiar with the story of Sun Wu Kong, a.k.a. the Monkey King.

In the story (written in the Tang Dynasty and officially titled Journey to the West), a monk is joined by the monkey king, who has god-like powers but is somewhat mischievous and uncontrollable; Ba Jie, who was once punished by the gods for being overly lascivious by being made into a half-man, half-pig; and Wu Jing, once a sea god. Together, the four travel to the West, or India, to collect the Buddhist scriptures and bring them back to the Chinese emperor. It’s a famous adventure story, and it is filled with battles and obstacles and general trauma before the ultimate triumph. Every few years, someone makes it into a serial drama for Chinese TV (even NBC did a mini-series in the US a few years back), and last year Mayday wrote a song about it.

I told my friend that I, too, knew the story (I cheated – I read it in English. I have an abridged Chinese version but I haven’t gotten to it yet). He replied, “Oh good. Well, this is where they translated the texts brought back from India.”

I was momentarily flabbergasted. As soon as I recovered, I realized that I had to tread lightly. After all, I’d known him for all of an hour; perhaps his entire belief system is founded on an absolute faith in the evident truth of the Journey to the West, but I had always thought that the story was accepted as that, and had no place of its own in Buddhist mythology.

I nodded, and hoped I sounded simply ignorant rather than doubting or defiant as I asked, “But there, ah, wasn’t really a monkey king, right?” He stared hard at me, and for a moment I thought I’d offended him. I’m sure in actuality he spent that moment trying to decide how to address my question without mocking my apparent faith in monkey adventurers, but he finally started to laugh. He explained that he only mentioned the story as a reference; of course the texts were retrieved by real live monks, not through any great monkey/pig heroics.

After the pagoda, we got some ice cream and sat down to wait for the fountain performance. The ice cream was inexplicably in the shape of an ear of corn on a stick, and was vaguely corn flavored, but still sweet and, most importantly, cold. The fountain performance was, er, everything I’d hoped it would be, and somewhat inexplicably to the tune of the “Blue Danube Waltz,” which, incidentally, I’m still singing. From there we took motorcycle taxis – a three wheeler with two back seats for me and my friend’s wife and a regular motorcycle for my friend – across town to a restaurant (the idea behind the private motorcycle offering lifts to wayward travelers is that the driver gets a little extra cash, and the rider gets a ride that costs less than a taxi – my friends say they often take them if they only have a few kuai on them and need to get somewhere, but that night they took them for my benefit).

We spent the rest of the evening toasting to friends, the wonder that is terra cotta, Sun Wu Kong, the fountain and so on with beer served in bowls, which is apparently local custom in keeping with the ancient China theme (and eating, of course).

My second day in Xi’an I took care of an important bit of business. Many of you are aware of my past concerns that the terra cotta warriors have been stalking me. To date, they have tracked me to Washington, San Francisco, Paris, and Hong Kong; they just missed me in Seoul (I outwitted them). I once presented all of the evidence I had in favor of this to a friend of mine here, who listened quite seriously and ultimately wondered if perhaps it wasn’t that it was the terra cotta warriors themselves behind it all, but in fact the ghost of the emperor of Qin.

Either way, being stalked, even by inanimate objects, is somewhat unsettling (perhaps all the more so because they are, or at least ought to be, inanimate). I felt that the best way to put the whole thing to rest would be to confront them, en masse, in their place of residence. The soldiers are in their excavation pits about 40 kilometers outside of Xi’an. Fed up with organized tours that involve more shopping than sightseeing, I decided to go the Chinese way, on the public bus. 8 kuai (US $1) for the roundtrip, with a stop at Huaqing Chi (the imperial baths – a retreat for the emperor in the Tang dynasty, like the summer palace in Beijing was for emperors in the Ming and Qing Dynasties).

The gardens around the baths were very pretty (the baths themselves were decidedly not, as the hot spring source that supplied them with water in the Tang era have long since dried up), but the place has an additional claim to fame: it was the site of the Xi’an Incident during World War II, when two of Chiang Kai’shek’s officers placed him under house arrest to try to get him to adjust his policies of ending internal strife (read: hunting communists) over fighting the Japanese. Naturally, these two were lauded as heroes by the Communist government and there’s a rather lovely, if somewhat heavy handed, display complete with original preserved bullet holes, devoted to the affair.

Once at the site of the terra cotta soldiers, I wove through a tent city of souvenir stands and finally reached the entrance, where I hired a guide to show me around at the site. At first I wasn’t going to just because he stood right in front of a sign in Chinese that said that guides cost 30 kuai for groups of five people or fewer and asked for 100 kuai to show me around. When I pointed to the sign, he told me that price was only for Chinese people. I told him that if I could pay the Chinese price, he could give the tour in Chinese, but otherwise to forget it.

He must have decided this was better than nothing, because he came running up as I stalked away and started in on the history of the terra cotta soldiers (I did not reveal that I have a personal history with them. This is not a story I generally share with strangers). He did not tell me anything that was not on one of the handy bilingual signs posted around the area, but because I was visiting alone, he was at least useful as a photographer and occasionally, for holding my water bottle (had to get my 30 kuai’s worth somehow, right?).

He tried so hard to get me to buy a personal scaled down set of warriors in the gift shop that I assume the usual Chinese deal where the guide gets a cut of the profits was in play, but I expressed no interest in spite of his earnest claims that having at least one, but ideally, a group of five displayed in my home would ward off evil spirits. Having at present no evil spirits (other than that insidious sprite, dissertation procrastination) needing fending off, I politely declined.

In fact, I bought a set for a fraction of the price from one of the touts outside (using the classic bargaining trick of walking away, yelling ever lower prices over my shoulder until the peddler caved and ran after me to complete the sale). My logic is this: although I do not require them to help me ward off evil spirits, I would be eternally grateful if they will serve to ward off other terra cotta soldiers. It’s the same principle, for example, as having a small, portable ninja on hand to ward off its life-size (and infinitely more dangerous) counterparts. You understand. (Some of you actually do. The others, I trust, are well accustomed to humoring me by now.)

When I returned to the city that afternoon, I met up with my new friends and trekked up to the top of the city wall. There we rented bicycles and cycled the whole loop, stopping at each of the large city gates for rest, shade (107 that afternoon, and a cloudless sky), water, and, naturally, pictures of us wilting in the sun. It was easy biking, being flat and wide with nice tall walls on either side once used to conceal archers but now necessary to keep bikers with sub-standard steering capabilities like myself from careening over the edge.

Still, by the end of that long day in the sun, I was exhausted and starting to feel a bit sick from the sun. From there, however, we went straight for dinner at a Latin American barbeque place (which they chose because the restaurant brews its own beer, and they thought I’d appreciate some ‘good’ stuff. Of course, the beer showed up bright green and turned out to be seaweed flavored. Words fail me).

The concept behind the restaurant is that young men in soccer uniforms come around with big slabs of different kinds of meat – more than 20 in all – and cut off a bit for each diner before bringing the next kind. I knew I couldn’t refuse them all, as much as I would have liked to, so my plan was to work slowly on the first few kinds they brought and then claim I was too full to continue past there. This plan, I discovered, was somewhat flawed. If the first few things had been squid and roast beef (which I can choke down past my vegetarian esophagus pretty convincingly), I might have managed it.

Sadly, the first thing that showed up on my plate were two little sort of round, sort of oblong things that I couldn’t identify. I heard something about chicken, so I bravely doused them in ketchup and popped one in my mouth. As I was chewing, my friends asked how it compared to other chicken hearts I’d eaten. After a brief internal battle, I managed to swallow and look more closely at the other piece on my plate. Pushing the ketchup aside, I could see the little blood vessels pieces sticking up and recognize the shape for what it was. That was pretty much it for me. I managed some watermelon and most of an ear of corn, but I was resorting to some of my childhood antics with napkins to clear the meat from my plate, even as it kept magically reappearing in new and ever more frightening forms as the scary soccer guys attacked from all angles.

After dinner I said goodbye to my new friends, as they’d be working the next day when I took off for Guangzhou. Before my flight, I went and toured the mosque and had a snack in the Muslim quarter, and then finally tore myself away from a city I loved at first sight. The flight from Xi’an to Guangzhou was quite turbulent, which caused the flight attendant to come on the intercom and make the standard announcement in Chinese about encountering light turbulence, returning to seats and fastening seatbelts. A few moments later, and almost as an afterthought, the same woman reappeared and announced in English, “The plane has run into some problems. Fasten seatbelts.” While absolutely true, I suspect this phraseology did not quite accomplish the same task of calming and informing that the Chinese version managed.

Da da da dum duuummm, dim dim, dum dum….. (you ripple and gleam….) sorry.

Okay, next time, and quite soon for that matter: Guangzhou apartment hunting (complete with a ravenous Citibank ATM), overseas visitors, bizarre sunburns and a run-in with a vicious attack tree.

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