11 June, 2012

Running Through Xi'an

Also, it should please you
to know that I am treating

I did it. I ran a half-marathon. 

I've been reading a lot of "what to do after the marathon" blogs, and many of them talk about developing runner's depression after a race. They recommend that you wait a week before really reflecting on the race and what happened, so that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to wait a week before I try and write about it. 

Sorry if you came here today to read all about it... Stay tuned. In the meantime, enjoy another old post from before my VPN. This (hopefully) fascinating read is about my four-day, three-night trip to beautiful Xi'an over the winter holiday. 

My first semester finally over, I finally got an opportunity to relax and vacation. And what a glorious opportunity it was.

I did not want to travel too far from Lanzhou over this first holiday, for two reasons. First, a student has invited me to celebrate the Chinese New Year (known as Spring Festival) with her and her family. This is an opportunity I’m really excited to have. I really want to experience the holiday first-hand, as Chinese people celebrate, instead of from a voyeuristic perspective as a traveller or tourist.

The other reason I didn’t want to travel too far: I’m poor. Some of my fellow volunteers have these amazing month-long tours of southern Asia planned, spending their time going from country to country, and beach to beach, relaxing. I can’t afford that.

So after my grades were submitted, I hopped on a train to Xi’an. We took a night train and it was only a nine-hour trip, so we awoke in Xi’an, ready to explore.

Xi’an is a city with an impressive history. It was the capital of China during multiple dynasties, the most important being the Tang Dynasty. If the average westerner knows it for one thing, it is the home of the Terra Cotta Warriors.

My first impression of the city was how westernised it was. I guess I have gotten pretty comfortable with Lanzhou, which is not all that western. There are a couple KFCs in town, but the city, while modernised, does not feel like it has had a lot of western influence. Xi’an was remarkably western, by comparison.

This is something I should have known, or at least realised, and not been so surprised. The city is much larger and more popular than Lanzhou. It has exponentially more foreign tourists because of how much history is there. There’s an established expatriate community. However, for whatever reason, I saw a McDonalds next to a Baskin Robins, next to a Subway, next to a Dunkin' Donuts, next to a Papa John’s, next to a Burger King, and I freaked out a little bit.

We tried to see as much as we could in the city. Unfortunately, time and the cold were severely limiting factors. We were only there for four days, and it was pretty cold. You can only walk around the city for so long when the temperature is barely above freezing. Our goal was to make a whirlwind tour of the most popular and famous sites. We saw the Terra Cotta Warriors, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, the Little Wild Goose Pagoda, the Grand Mosque, the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower; we explored the Muslim Quarter many times, and we walked along the City Walls (unfortunately, no one would allow us to rent bicycles to ride along it).

The Warriors were remarkable. Ignore anyone who says otherwise. They're the same people who shrug at the Pyramids of Giza. They're fools. Like the Pyramids, you're witnessing a historical marvel: something we cannot actually understand how they created. It was awesome in the truest sense of the word. Also, I was personally pretty excited because I read a book about the history of neckwear (I know, I'm the coolest), and they said that the first instance in human history they can find of men wearing something around their neck is the Terra Cotta Warriors... and now I can tie a tie eighty-five different ways.

Like the city, our time was spent blending and juxtaposing ancient Xi’an with its globalised present. I wandered around the gardens of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda with a Blizzard from Dairy Queen. After visiting the Terra Cotta warriors, we found this Italian bistro run by some expats and enjoyed the tastiest dinner I’ve had since my father’s birthday last February.

People may accost me; people may tell me that I’m not in China to enjoy western luxuries. I have been living in China for half a year, and it gave me some piece of mind to enjoy something that reminded me of home. However, more seriously than that, the accosters need to understand that the juxtaposition of new and old, east and west, is China.

Occasionally stopping at McDonald’s for a McFlurry is how Chinese people live (in Lanzhou, there is no McDonald’s, so it’s usually into KFC for a sundae). The majority of the Chinese population lives in cities, and cities have western fast food. KFC, as the largest fast food chain in China, is inescapable. The Italian place we went for dinner (as well as the Dutch café and Indian restaurant other days) are no different from the foreign cuisine available to people in the United States.

One thing about my visit to Xi’an that I never could get used to was not being stared at. In Lanzhou, I get stared at where ever I go. However, in Xi’an, it wasn’t weird to see a two-metre-tall, blonde-haired waiguoren (外国人). It's weird because I hate being stared at when I go placed in Lanzhou. Even when I go to the grocery store (which happens multiple times a month), I still draw lengthy stares. It’s funny, because I really dislike being stared at in Lanzhou, and yet I noticed no eyes on me everywhere I went.

Despite all the above talk of western food, I was not going to spend four days in a city without enjoying the local fare. I read about multiple foods Xi’an is known for, and I was lucky enough to try two of them. The first, yang rou pao mo (羊肉泡沫), is a lamb stew with onions and clear noodles poured over small pieces of unleavened bread. The restaurant we went to had the bread pre-torn, but throughout the Muslim Quarter, you could see people at tables tearing up bread, preparing to enjoy the dish. It was served with pickled garlic and I had the option of them cooking an egg in my stew. It was delicious.

The other Xi’an-specific meal I had multiple times while in the city was called rou jia mo (肉架末). It is almost a Chinese-equivalent to a burger. It could be any kind of meat: we saw it offered with beef, pork, lamb and chicken. Slices of meat were rotating on a vertical spit, slow-cooking to delicious perfection. They cut off pieces, chopped them up with lettuce, seasoned them with something magical, and served it on bingzi (饼子), which is Chinese bread, kind of like a dense, layered biscuit). One place we ate at even served them on actual buns, something I’d not seen in China, anywhere. (I’ve looked for buns before because any and every loaf of bread you buy in China is sweetened, which is not ideal for sandwiches.)

I mentioned this previously, but it was really just a whirlwind trip. We were constantly on the go. We woke up early every day and tried to see everything we could. That's not necessarily the best way to see a city; I think my blog isn't about the places as much as reflections Xi'an brought about because of it. Because there was so much time spent on the go, I have a ton of photos. Here are some of them, the rest will be on facebook later. 

The Drum Tower.
One store we went into had
this hoodie on display.

The front gate of the City
Walls. There were lots of
decorations going up for
Spring Festival.
The first historical record
of mens' neckwear. 

We were prohibited from using
the flash of our cameras, so some of
my photos are blurry. 

The setting sun from atop the City Walls...
marred by pollution, of course.

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