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November 19, 2006 - Xi'an, China

The Throngs of Xi'an

Swallowing Things

Sleeper train to Xi’an was perfect. Left Guyuan at 10:30PM and arrived in Xi’an at 7:30AM. Well, not really. Thats when we were scheduled to arrive. We were an hour late, but who cares when you have your own cot?

Met a few people on the train that confirmed some of the touristy spots Im planning on visiting and shared some preserved chicken on a stick for pre-breakfast.

The first sight of Xi’an hit like a careening yak. The streets swarmed with the urgency of an anthill - going from 50 thousand in Guyuan to 6 million in Xi’an will do that. This fury started in the train station - the exit was packed - and poured out into the city.

Feeling a tug on my arm - I swung ‘round expecting street urchin or worse - I was greeted by the smile of one of my bunkmates and she dragged me towards a secret exit. It pays to make friends with locals.

Stepping out of the terminal greeted me with haze, wall to wall people, buses, bikes, carts, trucks and the massive city wall. The wall, due to its size, almost blotted itself out. Three huge gates open into the city creating a framed vista - and I mistook the gates for empty space. Stretching from East to West it makes quite the impression. Xi’an is arrayed within these walls with surprising order - a large cross is formed by the four major roads, Bei Dajie, Nan Dajie, Dong Dajie and, yup, you guessed it, Xi Dajie - especially for what I’ve seen of older Chinese cities.

The walk to my hostel only took 20 or 30 minutes. And, yes, I said hostel. Not that I have anything against hostels.

I just hate them. Obviously I tolerate them enough to stay in them - you can’t beat 30 kuai a night - but I could beat all the smelly backpackers with a bar of soap and it would do us all some good. And then there’s the guitars.

Something about multiple people playing guitars and bongos and harmonicas gets my blood boiling. Maybe they’re not confident to play by themselves. Maybe they think the cat strangling they’re participating in distracts from the smell. Maybe they’re just bloody daft. Maybe its the fact that they’re sitting in a hostel at 9:30AM in Xi’an playing guitars. They could do that in Vermont and spare me.

Whew. Deep breath. Remember, 30 kuai. Exit hostel.

Walking to the bus stop I’m treated to an old man swallowing things. From a tire-iron to a large metal ball to a live snake. Anything for a few kuai.

Hopped on the local bus to the terra-cotta warriors after negotiating a throng of taxi and mienbao che drivers trying to pick up fares to the tombs. Throngs should be the word of the day. 60 minutes later we pulled up to a massive parking lot.

Deciding to save the best for last I skirted Pit #1 and visited the outlying pits first. I was impressed by the cleanliness of the museum - and by the accessibility of some of the artifacts, to the point of being fondled by the crowds. I mean throngs.

Pit # 2 was a work-in-progress - frozen. Exhibiting rarely shown self-control the government has decided to stop excavation on the pit to stave off oxidation and destruction of the buried statues. That is until a solution to the problem is found I assume. The pit was probably 150 meters across - and the building over it was equally massive - a beautiful juxtaposition of thousand year old earthen tombs built with clay brick and wooden timbers facing the open ceiling girdled with geometrically perfect steel beams. Too bad everybody was too busy looking down at the broken clay statues to appreciate it. The majority of the pit was unexcavated, leaving a rolling surface hugging the contours of the chambers below - almost as if a veil of mud had been carefully draped over the hidden men.

Moving on to Pit #1 I expected to be awed - and maybe that was the problem. I entered from a set of back stairs and found myself in a glorified airplane hangar. Below, thousands of soldiers in various stages - from broken shards to restored legions - above, a curved steel roof peaking in an enormous skylight spanning the entire 200 meter length. I don’t mean to say it wasn’t impressive but on the scale of wonders it wasn’t jawdropping. The back half of structure was a single flat expanse of ground - undisturbed and hiding what lay just inches below - the front half a gradation of soldiers, fully restored in front and gradually degrading into pieces towards the back.

It was almost as if we were watching an imperceptibly slow deconstruction of this army.

Leaving the complex I met another throng - reminiscent of the army inside - rising to challenge the visitors leaving. As soon as I passed the exit gate I was set-upon - not that I hadn’t been warned about these very vultures.

Just to be up front I’ll tell you that I caved. In my ear a shout,

“Yi bai er shi kuai!!!”

120 kuai. I silently walked on. No more than five steps later, the same cry,

“Yi bai kuai!!!”

100 kuai. In five steps, without a word I had knocked 20 kuai off the price of a small set of ceramic soldiers. I decided to respond.

“Bu yao.”

I don’t want them. Undisturbed, the shark followed with,

“Jiu shi!!”

90 kuai. So by now we’ve knocked off a quarter of the price and I’ve expressed zero interest - in fact I’ve told the fellow I didn’t want them. Again, with some force this time,

“Bu yao!”

“Ba shi.”

80 kuai. Mind you I’m walking at a good pace and we’re a good 50 meters from the exit now. Every few steps he knocks off 10 kuai and I insist I’m not interested.

He hits the 40 kuai mark - a third of his original price - and I make my move.

“Shi kuai.”

10 kuai. As if I had insulted his mother he starts of on a tirade that I can only begin to imagine the contents of.

A few steps later - like magic - he calms down. I obviously didn’t insult him too badly.

We haggle a second longer and I walk away with a set of soldiers for 10 kuai. He then offers a second set for 10 more.

One TWELFTH of the initial price and I still feel like I’d been had…

$1.20 lighter and a set of statues heavier I get on the bus - I remind myself to work on my bargaining skills.

» Link lovin’

Down Eiger - Add skis and a parachute to a couple of wack-job Frenchies and you’ve got this. Nuts.

Protonic Entanglement - Add thick glasses and few miles of fiber optic cable and two entangled protons and you’ve got this. Time travel.

Beavis and 12 Years - Warning: Graphic. A young man rephotographed after his appearance in Time Magazine. Riveting. Take a look at the rest of the “Poverty” set - I had to close the page after 30 minutes to stop looking at them.

i thought with your background you would be over buying pottery trinkets....

- ertha on a Sunday

ah - ceramic crap.

but how often can you get gouged for some knock-off ceramic trinkets in the middle of china.... wait... don't answer that.

chalk it up to a momentary lapse of reason.

and for the record these knock-offs look raku fired - better done than alot of the big ceramic trinkets from my past...

- Allister on a Monday

Snakes???? The NYC street performers could take some lessons apparently...

- SMO on a Monday

bad timing on dissing hostals. trying to save a few dollars in barcelona, I have been looking into the hostals there. Hopefully, no smellies, guitars or bongo drums. Will advise.

- judy on a Monday

SMO - you betcha snakes. this guy was talented - he had somebody palpate his stomach, then swallowed a 2-inch metal ball - then he had the whole crowd feel the hard lump. may have been fake, but i doubt it.

that was warming up for the live snake down the hatch.

judy - sorry to bear the news at the wrong time. as long as you don't get a dorm room with 8 or 10 beds you can get one with just 2. nobody forces you to strum with the hippies. i got scarce when they started their friday "meet & greet" dumpling party.

- Allister on a Monday

I think a city that size would give me a heart-attack. Then again, I'm no New Yorker...

Dang, I guess if you can go from barren-tundra-land to a city of 6 million, you're learning a few things. Better you than me! Glad you had a good time!! Ok, back to my igloo....

- Siobhan on a Tuesday
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