Saturday, November 7, 2009

Saturday in Xi'an

November 7th we decided to take as a complete day off, despite the need to prep for Pavan's CGA exam Dec 2nd in Beijing. We slept in, brewed coffee, and poured milk on the table courtesy of our unpourable New Zealand milk. It comes in 1L cartons that are apparently good for a year! Before leaving Chris mentioned that stabilizer chemicals in milk are fairly industrial here. We also enjoyed our en suite laundry. En suite laundry means a washer and some drying racks; the notion of a mechanical dryer has not caught on. Our washer decided to split the water 50/50 between itself and the laundry room floor!

Visibility from the apartment window is quite interesting. We are on the 20th floor and generally higher than a lot of things around us but the smog/fog (hopefully the latter, probably the former) cuts visibility even more dramatically than in Beijing.

At around 11am we grabbed a cab out to the Bell Tower. The Bell Tower is somewhat South of the center of the rectangle formed by the city walls, which was quite convenient as we were scheduled to meet Colin (co-worker) at 2pm to bike the city walls. The Bell Tower is somewhat novelly situated: it's in the center of a traffic island!

To gain access to it one must enter a warren of tunnels and walk around to the underground entrance upwards. The streets leading off the Bell Tower are North Street, South Street, etc and there are very nice labels in the tunnel warren as to where you are coming up, such as "North Street, East Side". Along the tunnels are further tunnels leading off into stores. Some of these are actually quite large!

The Bell Tower has our favorite type of bell on it's NW corner: ringable. For ¥10 we got to give it several wacks. The people prior to us were giving the bell tentative little rings. We gave it a pretty solid couple of wacks. The people after us hit the bell a great deal harder than the people before us, evidently inspired by our efforts.

The Bell Tower yields an excellent view of the most unusual Starbucks building we`ve ever seen. Starbucks is great as they have a clean washroom, coffee, and, to Rod`s immense pleasure, bottles of pure grapefruit juice. We have been to the Bell Tower area a couple of times now and always wind up stopping for a few moments at Starbucks to use the facilities and juice up.

After we whaled on the bell on the Bell Tower a few times a pair of Chinese women came up and started waving their camera at us. We initially thought they wanted us to take a picture of them but it turned out that we (probably especially Rod) were an attraction in our own right and what they wanted was to take their picture with us! This amused us quite a bit and seemed to please them as they each posed with us in turn. Sadly it didn`t occur to us until after to take a picture of them taking a picture with Rod.

Inside the main building of the Bell Tower was a small but very nice exhibit of artifacts. The most striking feature of this was the very wide range of dynasties represented. We speculated this range might be due to Xi'an being capital a rather long time ago. Qing (1644-1912) was, as always, well represented but unlike Beijing where there was very little non-Qing in sites like the Forbidden City there was also Han (206 BC-220AD), Tang (618-907), Song (960-1279, not sure if this was Northern Song or Southern Song), Ming (1368–1644), and perhaps one or two others we forgot. There was a no photo sign that we obeyed for some reason so no pictures of these artifacts.

After the Bell Tower we headed a short distance West to the Drum Tower. These always seem to come in pairs and are usually aligned on North/South or East/West axis in other places. The Xi'an Drum Tower was actually moved so while it is presently not in line with the Bell Tower it may once have been.

The Drum Tower had the best possible type of drum: drummable! Similar to the Bell Tower, Rod hit the drum much harder than the people before and this appeared to inspire greater effort from the people after. Pavan declined to bang the drum. There was also a row of drums that we were discouraged from drumming.

The Drum Tower is on the outskirts of the Muslim Quarter. This area stretches North-West of the Bell Tower and is noted for large numbers of street vendors and having what is described as a "Great Mosque". We have not yet visited this but probably will do so soon. Apparently it is a novel combination of Chinese and Muslim architectural motifs.

The outside walkways of the Drum Tower are designed with certain proportions in mind. These proportions present certain hazards to those who are a bit bigger than the plans allowed for.

Inside the Drum Tower was a nice display of drums. Similar to the display in the Bell Tower, these spanned a relatively large collection of dynasties.

Between the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower is a kind of square. There are some vendors and also some awesome long trails of kits that people fly (and sell). A trail of kites is a large number of small kites on the same line a few feet apart. A trail of kits can fly out to be quite long and looks quite cool when it does. Amusingly, if you look down from the Drum Tower you can see some trees with TONS of crashed kites.

In the tunnel just to the East of Starbucks is a grocery store. It looks like a small entrance into a little store off the tunnel warren but once you enter it stretches on for ages and multiple levels. Even better, it has western style products! Normal cereal is unavailable at our local supermarket but stocked here. They also have some novel beverages, most notably Jack Daniels pre-mixed with cola!

Next we headed down south to the South Gate to meet Colin for a bike ride around the city walls. Our first problem was we couldn`t figure out how to get to the entrance. The walls looked very nice though.

We eventually met Colin and he indicated that the way to the entrance was to walk straight through the traffic entering and exiting the walled part of the city!! Most dangerous entrance to a significant attraction we`ve ever seen. Pavan was hungry so we decided to grab a bite before getting run over. Colin guided us to a non-descript door in a wall that proved to be the entrance to a multi-floor restaurant! The food was awesome, particularly a local Shaanxi specialty of spicy noodles. These were flavored with mustard seeds and had a hint of a vinegar as well. The effect was absolutely delicious! According to Colin similar noodles are available in the village near the office. We are looking forward to sampling them.

We headed out, survived the traffic-walk, and got inside the City Wall. Right at the entrance were some supposedly traditionally attired guards to take photos with. The most novel part of this was that there is no charge! Much better than Rome where corny legionaires want five euro for a picture!!

There was also some sort of old bell that we were able to sort of ring by tapping. It also proved large enough for Rod to fit in, to the immense amusement of domestic tourists. Pavan helpfully encouraged them to tap the bell while Rod was inside. Rod contemplated how much damage it would do to him were the bell to drop off it's hangers while he was under it.

The South Gate building is also a shop with some items that are quite old (and expensive) on display amidst the normal touristy trash. Most notable was a table that Pavan liked that turned out to cost ¥120,000 ($18.9K!!) and a huge drum that may or may not have been for sale.

The wall was rather fun just to be on. We walked a short distance West to a bike rental shop where we rented bikes for 100 minutes for ¥20 (about $3.25) per bike. The bikes were old, somewhat decrepit looking, one-speed affairs but worked quite well.

Each gate (NESW each have one) has a building and a courtyard.

Other than near the South Gate the wall is relatively empty. There are towers at fairly regular intervals along the wall.

One curious aspect of the view from the wall is that as you get away from the South Gate a lot of the buildings immediately within the wall essentially look like slums. There are semi-ruined buildings with occupants, roofs made of sheet metal held in place by putting loose bricks on top, and in some places existing semi-completed concrete and steel buildings that have then had shanty-style lean-tos added on top to create more living space.

As we got toward the end of the ride the sun was dipping and it gave the air a decidedly yellow and rather polluted look.

It tooks us around 75 minutes to go around the wall even with continual stops to chat and take photos. It was great fun. We hope to find time to come back and either do it again or maybe attempt to jog around it, though that might be tough after having had the last three weeks more or less off from excercise.

After the ride Pavan and Rod were hungry so we took Colin and went to Pizza Hut (a nice restaurant here). We ran into a novel problem that overall it appears that we like Chinese food rather more than Colin likes western food! Eventually we found mutually acceptable selections and we enjoyed a nice relaxing post-ride meal and a great deal of water to wash down the dust.

It was getting a bit dark but we did not wish to call it a day so we decided to find a bar. It turns out that one of the most noted bar strips in Xi'an, Defu Xiang (just NW of the South Gate) was right near us so we headed there. We went to a number of bars, most of which were not very crowded and quite quiet. The first one was neat as it had suspended benches on wires to sit on.

We attempted to order Jack Daniels and Coke Zero for Pavan. This took a fair while but eventually they figured it out and sent a runner out for coke. Unfortunately she came back with regular coke and had to run out again to get a Coke Zero! In the meantime we enjoyed a couple of Tsingtao (local beer). Colin helpfully clarified that the pronounciation is more or less "ching-dow", which was quite different than our first attempts. We hopped from bar to bar, ran into a couple of Germans who didn`t think the Terracotta Warriors were impressive, and eventually went to a bar that had a chap playing guitar and singing pop songs in Mandarin. Other tables were enjoying dice so we got some dice and tried the game. The local game is very simple: you take a cup with five dice, shake it around (often by putting the cup upside down on the table over your dice), and whoever has the highest total wins. We came up with a much better game (particularly when a little buzzed): take a couple of dice, shake them around, lift the cup and try to announce the sum of spots showing as fast as possible, with the quickest correct answerer winning. Sounds a bit stupid sober but rather amusing when you have had a few.

After a bit of this we wandered to another bar and found out they served noodles. Pavan and Rod were tremendously enthused about this and we ordered "Ingredient Noodles" (a curious translation of a local specialty involving noodles, cilantro, and a variety of vegatables) and "Beef Noodles" (closer to as advertised). The noodles were very good, as always. Shaanxi is deservedly noted for it`s noodles. Noodles were not produced in-house, the bar sent a runner off to somewhere to fetch them. The runner may even have had to go to two different places as he went out on two seperate trips to fetch the two types of noodle.

At this point we were about done so we cabbed home, very happy with our day.

We have an awesome time with almost everything we do because it is ALL different and new for us. Our two biggest worries coming to China were getting bored and having to eat chinese food continually. Xi'an still has quite a lot of attractions to visit even within the immediate downtown area so there seems to be no risk of getting bored anytime soon and the chinese food in China is quite different, and FAR better, than what we think of as chinese food at home. One of our absolute favorite activities in China turns out to be going for lunch with Rod`s co-workers in the nearby "village" where we get new and delicious dishes every time, usually for about $10 or so to feed four or five people.

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