Monday, November 16, 2009

A Snowy Xi'an Weekend

Sight-Seeing Saturday, November 14th 
Over morning coffee we realized something truly shocking: the Chinese do not seem to serve fortune cookies with Chinese food! If there is one thing you can count on at every Chinese restaurant at home, it's fortune cookies.

Speaking of home, it turns out we're away at a good time. In addition to missing the Olympic's traffic disasters in February we are currently missing the H1N1 plague. Both our employers and our school (BCIT) have issued "quarantine thyself on symptoms" advisories. In the Burnaby office Rod usually works out of people are dropping like flies. Most people recover after a few days to a week off but it still sounds remarkably unpleasent.

Our first stop for Sight-Seeing Saturday was to be the Shaanxi History Museum. This is free, but a limited number of tickets are given out every day so we wanted to get there before it opened to be sure of getting a ticket. We set off outside and immediately realized we needed to rethink our jacket strategy (or lack thereof) as it was rather cold. After a quick trip back to the apartment we left again, rather more bundled up. Gloves interfere with the camera so Rod spent the day freezing his hands. We got a cab fairly easily (yay!) and tried our new trick of saying where we want to go instead of relying on showing Chinese charactes co-workers have written out for us to the cabbie. After two attempts at Lì Shǐ Bó Wù Gǔan (lee sh-ugh bwa woo gwan) it worked! The driver, as usual, looked amused at our pronounciation but we were off!

We got to the Shaanxi History Museum, waited in a short line, and then the lady at the desk demanded passports. In a pinch she seemed to accept other ID but we had deliberately removed all of it from our wallets. Unfortunately she was firm on "one passport one ticket" so it was back to the apartment again. Our taxi driver on the way back was very enthused about Xi'an attractions in severely broken English. We grabbed our passports, went back out, got a taxi, and once again managed to say the name of the history museum.

Luckily after all this rigmarole the Shaanxi History Museum proved to be very nice. Lonely Planet described basically as boring so it blew way past our expectations. Enjoyment of an attraction seems to be quite linked to the difference between actual and expectation so if you go into a good attraction with low expectations the result is you enjoy it very much. The museum, like most displays in Xi'an and unlike a lot of Beijing displays (all Qing), covers a wide range of dynasties so we were able to see how a variety of artifacts changed over time. For example, we could see things like bowls and statues from 5000 BC all the way through to fairly recent dynasties. It was very interesting to see how rapidly things progressed from simple functional items to ornate decorative ones. As we wound up with rather a lot of photos at the museum, and Eric had mentioned interest in seeing some of the artifacts we were seeing, we have posted ninety of them to a public web album at rather than inserting directly into the blog. Wherever possible the text from the museum placard for the artifact shown is copied in as the description.

We needed to pick up a few cards so we checked the price at the musuem gift shop. They wanted ¥80, which dropped to ¥50 when we said no. We figured it'd probably be much cheaper outside. After spending several hours enjoying the museum we walked out and literally RIGHT in front of the museum was a lady selling packs of cards for ¥5 per pack. Lol.

Our map seemed to suggest that the Big Goose Pagoda was a short distance to the south-east so we set off on foot. One of the first things we passed was a man using a sophisticated new-fangled device to move stuff around

Just down the street was a row of street vendors, including the ever-popular street sweet potato with barrel-based heating system.

There were trees along the road, all of which made a neat Y to allow the power lines through. Neither of us had seen this before but they must be guided to grow this way.

It was quite cold and we were a bit hungry so we decided to stop at a hole-in-the-wall (essentially literally) vendor selling a variety of buns. There was no English but we managed to point and raise fingers to communicate what we wanted. Our understanding from the finger pointing exchange was that seasoned potato in a bun was ¥1 and a little stuffed bun thing was ¥4. The value for money seemed skewed but since the total was less than $1 we said OK and handed over a ¥10 note. It turned out there had been a minor miss-communication in our point and raise fingers exchange and the price was actually ¥1 for one potato bun and ¥1 more for four little white buns. We worked this out when the lady handed us ¥8 in change, one potato bun, and four white ones instead of the expected ¥5 change, one potato bun and one white bun. The buns were rather tasty. Attentive observers may notice the fingers holding the buns in the picture are really cold!

We never learned what these buns are actually called. We should probably learn how to say something like "what is this called" in Mandarin at some point so we can learn how to say new things while we're out and about. Or maybe not ... we need it written out with pronunciation to have much hope of saying something even vaguely correct.

We came to the North end of the Big Goose Pagoda area shortly after and started south looking for an entrance.

Nearby was a statue of an ancient drug king.

Sun Si Miao (581-682), the drug king of Great Tang
The famous medicine scientist of Tang dynasty, was honored as the "drug king" by afterworld

A couple of locals wanted to take pictures of us again. We accommodated and they seemed happy. A short distance further on a man was doing calligraphy with a fairly large brush using water.

Somewhat further south we found the entrance. Ticket purchase was slightly confusing as Lonely Planet lists the price as ¥45 to go to and up the pagoda but the most expensive ticket available was ¥25. We tried to ask if there was a ticket to go up but it died in the English-Mandarin divide. We bought the ¥25 ticket figuring (correctly) there was probably a second ticket to be bought further inside the complex.

Just inside the entrance this building caught our eye.

Slightly off to the west of the cool building we stopped to get a picture of Rod looking cold.

Directly west of the pagoda is a nice little garden. In it was a small building with snow on it. A lot of these little buildings seem to almost look nicer with snow than without. To some extent this may be because we have seen a LOT of them without snow and seeing them with snow is kind of novel.

We decided to go up the pagoda next. The original stairs in the pagoda are build to withstand elephants ascending and descending them. Climbing such stairs would obviously be no fun at all so someone helpfully installed a sort of veneer over them. This is poorly attached so it shifts and gives as you walk on it, dramatically increasing the sensation that the stairs are about to drop out from under you. From a few levels up the pagoda you get a rather nice view down onto the western gardens.

Looking north from the pagoda you can see the square outside where they put on a water jet show for tourists. In between water shows everyone walks out into this space to take pictures of the pagoda. Presumably the start of the water show often has a few humorous moments!

The pagoda has seven levels if we recall correctly (IWRC instead of IIRC?). The stairs wind up the inside of the walls so the floor space is quite minimal inside.

On the eastern side of the pagoda is a forest of much smaller pagodas.

All the wandering around outside had us a bit cold so we decided to head out of the pagoda complex and try to find the Indian restaurant we went to in the area once before. We thought it was on the street immediately west of the pagoda so we headed west. In the area west of the pagoda is a rather nice park with lots of little clusters of statues. Pavan found one that she felt an immediate bond with.

After this we headed out on the western street and thankfully re-discovered Delhi Darbar. We stayed there for a rather long lunch as it was much warmer than outside. The butter naan and yellow dal were exceptional.

Body tempreture restored, we headed out to find a taxi to take us north to the Bell Tower. We got in the cab and said Zhōng Lóu ("ju-ng low"). To our considerable surprise the taxi driver cheerfully responded "Bell Tower?" Along the way to the Bell Tower we learned that he had a little English, acquired along the way during eighteen years working in Xi`an as a cabbie. Right where he let us off we saw a "Jason Wood" store. This amused us as we know a Jason Wood.

The Great Mosque was north down a small street on our map. We evidently walked right past it as the first real street we saw was one too far. We walked up this and promptly got caught in a traffic jam of several cars, a number of scooters, quite a few bikes, and a LOT of people. Oh and a few auto-rickshaws for good measure.

After eventually getting free of this we spotted a sign for the mosque guiding us down a very touristy looking alley.

If there wasn`t a sign there is no way we would have guessed this was the path. The mosque wasn`t terribly big and a lot of the interesting bits were blocked off for the faithful only but what we could see was very nice. The landscaping and layout is particularly nice. The cold seemed to be keeping a lot of the tourists away so we had it largely to ourselves.

After spending a good bit of time exploring the mosque we walked out and turned right. Stretching directly down the side of the mosque wall, and then off south-east all the way back to the Drum Tower, was a serious vendor alley. We picked up some odds and ends, including some much needed gloves for Rod. These were almost certainly marked way up to take advantage of the cold. Ah well, the price was still pretty good. One lady saw us looking and opened a secret door by rotating back a shelf of crappy purses that exposed a narrow squeeze-space back into a much bigger space full of nicer merchandise. We tried to get a photo but she got all upset.

By this time it was getting darker (and colder) so we decided to stop at Starbucks to warm up before heading off way down east street to try to re-find the dvd store. Along the way we observed that Haagan-daz was putting up a Christmas tree. We have been wondering what to do for Christmas; perhaps we`ll go to Haagan-daz!

After warming up again we decided to get some stuff at "Korean Store". Initially we had intended to go to the dvd store, then come back for groceries but we were feeling enthused enough about taking a taxi straight home from the dvd store we were willing to carry groceries a bit further. We bought the store out of gouda with cumins and decent bread. For some reason they moved their cereal around and stopped carrying our preferred brand but we found some decent looking substitutes. On the way out we asked for fa piao (official receipt) and the clerk decided to ask more questions than usual. In Mandarin. This completely baffled us and our English completely baffled her. The lineup began to grow. Eventually we found someone else in line with enough English to help, who said the clerk wanted to know what we did. We said something about software and the clerk (via interpreter) said that this wasn`t a valid choice. We asked what valid choices were and what it was for and it probably was just a category that the store puts down for accounting to look at when you go for reimbursement. Since our accountants don`t care we suggested she just pick a nice category, maybe something like "food". Finally she put something (still not entirely sure what) down and released us. The lineup behind us was quite impressive by this time.

We managed to ram all the food into our backpack, then set off east for the dvd store. Along the way we were keeping an eye out for potential sources of camera batteries. The main Chinese brand doesn`t seem to please the camera so we needed to find a set by some other brand, preferably by a brand we recognized.

A short distance down east street we spotted street meat skewers and while buying one discovered they were adjacent to street sushi! This was pretty novel so we picked up a skewer of what was probably pork (¥3) and two california rolls (¥10). We ate the skewer (delicious!) on the spot and saved the sushi for later. Street food rules.

A few blocks further we saw a Walmart sign. This seemed promising for batteries but curiously the Walmart itself was nowhere to be seen, there was just a sign. We walked down the side street that looked like it might possibly be where the sign was meant to indicate, still didn`t see anything, and finally resorted to walking up to strangers and saying "Walmart". This produced pointing and Mandarin we didn`t understand. We set of in the direction of the pointing, still didn`t see Walmart, and asked again. This time we got a girl with some English who explained where Walmart was. We followed her directions and there it was! No more than a block from where she said it would be!! Walmart was as crowded and unpleasent as one could hope for, plus they stocked Energizer and Duracell batteries (albeit batteries marked as for China market use only. They may also work as hand granades). We picked up a pack of each, went through checkout, put them in the camera and it accepted them! Pavan headed back in to buy a few more packs while Rod lounged outside with the people-who-hang-out-near-Walmart. Eventually Pavan came out with batteries, only to announce she wanted a gift pack of Johnny Walker she`d seen. Apparently this was a Rod-purchase so Rod headed back in to go pick it up. Buying it went pretty smoothly but then a crucial error was made: the request for a bag. Four or five clerks talked frantically, dug through merchandise with great enthusiasm (or manic anxiety) and then finally very nervously announced they had no suitable bag. Oh well. Now equipped with a backpack *stuffed* with groceries, a big gift box of Johnny Walker, a couple of plastic bags with batteries, and a couple of packs of take-out street sushi, we set out to try to rediscover east street and then the dvd store.

East street was fairly easily re-discovered and after a rather long walk (the increased amount of baggage and the cold may have made it seem longer than normal) we finally found the dvd store again. The vendor seemed entertained by how much baggage we were hauling and allowed us to dump it in a corner while we browsed. We picked up a fair number of dvds and cds, on a whim decided we were going to watch Star Trek (a show neither of us ever paid attention to before), and wound up with ¥256 ($40!) worth of stuff.

After dvd store time, at about 9pm, it was time to get home. This was somewhat complicated by the dozens (per block) of other people who also wanted to get home. All of us wanted cabs. We walked back west along east street, periodically stopping to try to flag a cab. No luck. Few cabs and all full. We eventually made it all the way to the Bell Tower area again and started down south street. It too was packed with cab-wanters. A van-cab pulled over and propositioned us but his fee was rather high. Finally an auto-rickshaw guy pulled up to us and we decided to at least ask the price. After a small amount of confusion we figured out he wanted ¥30 ($5) to take us home so we got in. We probably should have negotiated; a taxi the same distance is normally ¥20. Still, for five bucks it`s hard to worry. This was Pavan`s first time in an auto-rickshaw so it was quite fun. Driving in front of buses in an auto-rickshaw is an experience to make you ponder your mortality. If auto-rickshaws were heated they`d be awesome but sadly they seem to follow a very pro-ventilation design scheme. It took thirty rather chilly minutes to bounce our way home. Towards the end our driver was confused about where we lived so we had to direct by yelling for attention then pointing whenever he looked puzzled. Overall the auto-rickshaw was quite fun but unless it was much warmer it is probably not something we`d go out of our way to repeat.

Home at last, we tried our street sushi and it turned out to be very good. And VERY spicy; Pavan got one bit that left her gasping for several minutes.

Sunday November 15th
We had a nice lazy morning, then walked over to the pool. It was alleged closed and cold but the girl eventually agreed to let us feel the water. It was a bit cool but warm enough so we finally had a swim. It was very nice to get moving again!

The pool room roof leaks but the building complex engineer has "solved" this problem after a fashion. There are ropes under the most egregious leaks (eg all seams in the roof panels) and on those ropes are hanging upside-down umbrellas, such that they are a dish catching water! There are a few minor flaws in this system like the tendency for umbrellas to pop inside out when more than a trivial amount of water accumulates and the way that water falling onto the seam between two umbrellas hanging upside down just passes through.

After our swim we dropped into the adjacent massage room and for ¥80 got an hour long massage each. Rod had never had a massage and thought the procedure was a bit strange. According to Pavan, the resident expert, it was quite good. They went pretty hard and it definitely felt good when it was over, though at times during the massage it didn't feel so wonderful.

Pavan cooked again for dinner. Cauliflower in a vinegar sauce as a starter and then spaghetti sauce with local noodles. Very different from what she makes at home, but very good.

That proved to be the evening the internet died. We are hoping for a week where we don't lose any basic services soon!

No comments:

Post a Comment