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Friday, September 09, 2005

All along the wall

Before I say anything about my walk today, let me just give a brief discourse on the state of China's internet cafes. Every single male customer smokes, and 90 percent of them stare with zombie eyes at whatever game they are playing. Right now, though, there is a guy speaking at the top of his lungs to an online girlfriend named Zhen ni (Jenny) and he keeps calling out her name in a way remiscent of Forrest Gump. I want to slap this guy. The guy next to me just spit a big thick wad of disintegrating lung phlegm onto the concrete ground and then he scratched his balls. At least he isn't smoking right now, or playing a game.

It is hot in Xian, about 34C [93F--ed.]. This morning and afternoon, the haze over the city was far worse than the worst of the hazes I experienced in Taipei, and when I went out to see Qinshihuang's famed terracotta army, the mountains behind the tomb were barely visible. In a disturbing way, the scene was reminiscent of my trip to Emeishan, when all the peaks were veiled in the clouds. Now it was just brown dirty air doing the trick.

The terracotta warriors were about what I expected. In a way, they are one of the main reasons I wanted to come to China, as I remember watching a show about them with Natalia in Taipei, and thinking, wow, I want to see those. I have also been reading an essay in Chinese about the warriors, which are made of clay. There are cavalry, charioteers, and senior officers in the army. Each one has a different facial expression and there are different hair styles and types of dress. Some archers kneel and some stand. They are all lifesize, and, as a Chinese saying goes "huo ling huo xian" or vivid and lifelike. I might tell you more about the history of it now, but I am going to count on David to provide a link to something that will be much more concise and accurate then I can offer. [Lazy.--ed.]

The most noticeable thing while at the site were the sheer numbers of foreign tourists, many of them past the age of 70. There were several in wheelchairs and many more who were hunched over and looked as if they might fall over at any minute. I applaud these people a great deal...I hope I'm doing the same thing if I make it to that age.

As I've been reading about this a bit in Chinese, I felt confident enough not to hire a guide and rely on my ability to figure out the signs. This didn't matter one bit as all the signs were in English anyway. But a tip to anybody going to see the warriors and debating whether to spend money on a guide: don't. There are so many groups going around that whenever you are curious about something you can just attach yourself to the nearest group. You can even ask the guide a question (although I did that in Chinese so as not to offend the people who were actually paying for the girl).

There are several more Qinshihuang related sights to the east of Xian, but I did not go to any of them. Instead I went back into the town. I bought a train ticket for Sunday night, a ticket which will take me to the small town of Pingyao, which is where the movie Raise the Red Lantern was filmed (a movie Natalia and I enjoyed quite a bit, and which was kindly given me by a co-worker in Taiwan when we were leaving). While at the station I realized I am becoming a bit harder, as I was shouting out "pai dui ba!" over and over again, which means, "line up, you stupid incompetent selfish bastard." OK, a lot of that was added on by me, but I can't believe how many Chinese people stand by while others cut in front of them in line, or worse just push their way to the window. I mean, you wait a good half hour in line as it is, and with these...anyway. And also, I got to tell some guys at the site of the warriors "gun dan," which means, "roll away egg"...I think maybe this was a bit overkill to say as one or two of the guys seemed a bit offended, but dammit, if I tell you ten times I don't want something that you are selling me, don't offer me a new price again, or show me something else you have. I don't want it.

So, after that digression...I walked most of the way around the perimeter of the old city today. I couldn't really walk around the eastern part of the wall due to serious construction there (I wonder how many houses have been torn down of late, as there are piles of rubble everywhere, and men hacking at stones, breaking them up.) The wall was started in 1370 AD and is about 12 meters high. It is very impressive. It is 14 KM in total, which means that I walked close to 10 miles in about 3 hours today.

At times, areas along the wall were quiet, with just the sound of mahjongg tiles being flipped and slapped down, and the sound of bicycles going by. There were some beds sitting on one of the raised parts of the wall (where some stairs led up to an embattlement), and more than once I saw clothes hanging up on lines attached to the wall. Men smoking and wearing no shirts, or with wife beaters rolled up high on their stomachs. Women sitting on stools knitting. A man ironing while his wife sewed. Low houses fronting four-story brick apartment blocks, piles of empty beer bottles being collected in front. Pool tables and old people sitting propped against walls, resting their chins on a cane. Conversation and children playing. The areas in front of the apartment blocks are the most fascinating. They seem to be a mix between parking area, communal gathering spot, pool hall, gambling den, laundry room, storage area, and playground, all on a flat, open, cracked concrete space less than ten feet from the street, usually behind a low and crumbling wall (here the walls seem to be painted white more often than not).

Again, there is no separation of inside life and outsife life here (today I saw a girl smack her boyfriend right across the face, and another couple making out in the park - which was actually the first time I have seen a Chinese couple make out in public, maybe the only thing that remains relatively private, not counting the prostitutes of course. And to continue this further, there are plenty of those in the area around my hotel. One of them last night came up and skipped right past the facade of offering massage. She just put her forefinger into a hole made by the other hand's thumb and forefinger and said "You want, huh? Come in, come in. Hello, hello, come in."). [Gentle reader, be assured that Alan did not accept this indelicate proposal. Right, Alan? Alan?--ed.]

Along the wall, there are several areas where the roads have been torn up and are being repaired. I had a chance to walk into one of the construction areas today and give the guys working a break and a laugh by taking their pictures and just chatting a bit. Some other guys asked me to play in their mahjongg games, but I was a bit shy about that. I really want to play against some of these guys, but I can't remember all the rules. Maybe with a bit of refreshing my memory...I think I can compete, though, as long as they don't mind me going a bit slow. Anyway, whereas yesterday it was hard to get pics, today was easy. It seemed like just about everyone I met was in a good mood and wanting to chat (or just stare). With the exception of the area around two of the southern gates, one of which has several cafes and bars, and the other of which is a tourist area with plenty of old style houses and calligraphy and Chinese painting shops lining the road and being displayed in small wooden booths in the middle of the pedestrian walkway, there were just no tourists. This was true even in the area where several antique shops had been set up along the west wall, although I suspect this will change when the road over there is all fixed up. This is neither good nor bad, in the sense that I don't care if there are or not, but it is nice to know that what is being seen is what people do every day, that there is nothing being put on for the sake of people who may or may not be coming. Perhaps this explains the great reactions from people. Or maybe I am again wanting desperately to believe that here on the beaten path of China travel I am finding streets that are not oft tread by foreign feet. How silly.

I am just about out of time, now, so I guess I won't say much about the smaller lanes I came onto when I could not longer walk right next to the wall. I am not saying anything either of the way trees so carefully disperse sunlight across the road in many of the areas along the wall, leaving most of the road and sidewalk in shadow. Just know that if you don't mind missing out on more specific tourist destinations, a walk along the city wall of Xian is not a bad way to spend a late afternoon.


Anonymous mom said...

It's so rare to read frustration into your writing! Will you teach me to play mah jongg when you come home?

7:58 AM  

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