Shaanxi and Henan Trip: Days 4 and 5

Luoyang is a city in the western Henan province of Central China. It borders the provincial capital of Zhengzhou to the east, Pingdingshan to the southeast, Nanyang to the south, Sanmenxia to the west, Jiyuan to the north, and Jiaozuo to the northeast.

Situated on the central plain of China, one of the cradles of the Chinese civilization, Luoyang was one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China.

That’s all well and good, Wikipedia, but what you fail to mention is that walking around outside in the city is like sucking on the end of a car’s tailpipe. Yes, the place served as the capitol for 13 ancient dynasties, but today its dusty streets, polluted air, and unending industrialization makes Luoyang a far-cry from the picturesque town that captured the fancy of the famous writer Bai Juyi during the Tang Period.

We got to the city by taking the High Speed Train from Xi’an. Getting the sword through security proved a bit easier since we had wrapped that baby up tightly. They still insisted that I not take it out and swing it around while on the train, though.

We took a bus to the youth hostel and got situated before heading out to the one redeeming quality the city has: Longman Grottoes.

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Now I’m sure I’m not giving the city it’s due credit, and since I was only there a day, I’m even willing to bet there’s more to the place than what I saw….but I just don’t care. Really, as I walked around outside in the heart of the city I could barely breathe. I got sick there after just eight hours. Anyway—the Grottoes.

There are as many as 100,000 statues within the 1,400 caves, ranging from an 1 inch to 57 feet in height. The area also contains over sixty Buddhist pagodas. Situated in what is probably the most scenic area in the whole darn city, the grottoes were carved from a stretch of cliff running along both banks of the river. 30% date from the Northern Wei Dynasty and 60% from the Tang, caves from other periods accounting for less than 10% of the total.Starting with the Northern Wei Dynasty in 493 AD, patrons and donors from the highest echelons of society endorsed artists to add to the site, even the first female emperor, Wu Zetian got involved.

This place basically became a spot of great spiritual significance, and a place to one-up who ever had carved or paid to have carved the previous grotto. All along the side of this mountain there are different size and styles of Buddha. There is no concept of planning things out or even the tried and true, “My side, your side.” The whole site seems like a bunch of very talented graffiti artists just decided to bum rush the mountain over a period of several hundred years.

The mastery is simply amazing, no doubt, but by about the halfway point you start to glaze over a lot of what you’re seeing. There are just SO MANY small caves with carvings. Too much detail all jammed together.

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Strike a pose, boys.
Strike a pose, boys.

But along with the artwork you can also see the glaring evidence that humans have always just liked breaking crap. Throughout the centuries the Grottoes have been ransacked, vandalized, and even forgotten. During different wars the Japanese defaced and stole many relics, western collectors and soldiers looted, and even the Chinese defaced the murals during the Cultural Revolution. It wasn’t until after 1949 and the establishment of the P.R. of China that the place even got officially “protected.”

While at the BIG Grottoes a group of foreigners—all with shaved heads—were attracting a lot of attention because of their shirts. They were a part of some Kung Fu school. They all looked athletic and like actual practitioners, but Xiao Ming said their shirts didn’t make a lot of sense since the designs were from two belief systems and the Chinese characters didn’t have significant meaning. I’d heard of schools that people could visit, even monasteries and temples that let people pay to stay and train at their facilities. I wondered if this group was like that…Either way, they were the stars of the stage. High schoolers and middle schoolers on fieldtrips flocked them and snapped pictures like manic little paparazzi.

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But when the baldies left, I was the only white face around. We tried to be discreet, but that just doesn’t work most of the time here. The focus of about fifty school-age teens turned to me, and I was coaxed into posing for a handful of pictures before we got away.

The whole site also includes the Xiangshan Temple, Bai Garden, and the tomb of the famous Chinese poet and writer, Bai Juyi. The writer lived in Luoyang during his later years.

We meandered around the whole place, taking in the sights, history, and enjoying the lack of floating dust particles the size of ping-pong balls. Afterward, as we were walking out, I tried to find some good postcards, but all of them looked like they were from the seventies, and the merchants wanted too much. I shrugged it off and decided to just find some at our next big destination when we got there: The Shaolin Temple.

This is a shot one of the kids took.....she held the camera like a gangsta getting ready to pop a cap...
This is a shot one of the kids took…..she held the camera like a gangsta getting ready to pop a cap…

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This is the Big Tang Stone...seriously, that's what it's called...was put here wayyy back in the day.
This is the Big Tang Stone…seriously, that’s what it’s called…was put here wayyy back in the day.

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"As wanderers, homeless and destitute, we have been brought together and though we have never before seen the other, the spirits of our lives are similar and allow us to know each other intimately." Kinda sorta a translation of a paraphrased summary by Xiao Ming
“As wanderers, homeless and destitute, we have been brought together and though we have never before seen the other, the spirits of our lives are similar and allow us to know each other intimately.” Kinda sorta a translation of a paraphrased summary by Xiao Ming
Bai Juyi's Tomb
Bai Juyi’s Tomb
Xiangshan Temple
Xiangshan Temple

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In the evening I wasn’t feeling well (told you I got sick), so I checked some things out online, chatted with a few other guests in Chinese, and then turned in early. We left after breakfast the next day and boarded another train to the city of Zhengzhou.

In retrospect, I have no idea why we didn’t just travel directly to Song Shan, the Sacred Mountain on which the famed Shaolin Temple is located. I think it was something about a museum or whatever, something we could do or see in the city for one day before heading over to the second sacred mountain of the trip. We were wrong. It was raining when we got there, but the place was a typical Chinese city: cramped, polluted, and full of scents you’re not entirely sure aren’t aromatic poisons.

The weather did nothing good for the cold that had begun to ravage my head, and having the hostel we booked before coming tell us—when we got there and were standing in the damn lobby—that they couldn’t accept foreigners didn’t help much. Yeah, we were tired, wet, and I was sick and the three girls behind the counter just looked at me like they’d never seen a white face. When they went about trying to explain how the city doesn’t allow most hostels or even smaller hotels to house foreigners I wanted to pull my hair out. They flitted and fluttered like crazy hens, moving and shifting papers, looking around with confused expressions. They reminded me of a female set of the three stooges. Seriously, I was waiting for one of them to slap the other or poke ‘em in the eyes.

Xiao Ming managed to track down a hostel and after a long conversation where she repeatedly made sure they could accept me, we made left. She told me that even the guy she spoke to on the phone sounded like an idiot. He mumbled, and spoke in fragments. This was the beginning of what we would come to later refer to as the “Zhengzhou Water” syndrome. Most idioms in Chinese are comprised of four characters and have a story or history to give them their meaning. We came up with our own idiom: He Zhengzhou Shui (drink zhengzhou water). We still use it to explain any stupid behavior. “Ta men he zhengzhou shui,”  they drink zhengzhou water, we say when something exceptionally stupid happens within sight.

Once we tracked down the “hostel” I groaned. The building was obviously not a hostel, and by the looks of it, not even a legal place for human habitation. The proprietor of the joint had acquired a beaten up apartment building and taken to calling it a hotel. Walking through the darkened halls with paint peeling from the walls and vague, muffled sounds coming from behind some of the doors we passed, it was hard not to think of every slasher movie ever. The room was cold and damp, but the sheets looked dry and clean.

Needless to say, not even getting to bed early helped my cold that night. I woke up the next day with a headache, sniffling, and probably running a fever, but I packed my bag up and we said so long to Slasher Inn. We kicked ourselves for even stepping foot in the city, but didn’t let the bad night keep us down long. We boarded a bus in the rain, and tried to relax as we headed to the last destination of the trip: Song Shan.

Xi’an Day Three: Hua Shan Lun Jian

There are stories—in China there are always stories—about Hua Shan’s connection to Chinese martial arts. Famous novels depict the sacred mountain as a ritual meeting place for Kung-fu tournaments and a sword competition where the winner is given a sword and proclaimed the champion. The “Hua Shan Lun Jian,” or Mount Hua’s Discussion of the Sword is a well-known cultural detail that just about anyone that visits the place can tell you about thanks to the “kung-fu” author, Jin Yong. Though we didn’t have to defend our honor in a bloody duel, I did descend the mountain with a sword. Here, I’ll tell you about it…

From the hostel we took the subway to the train station, and then the train to the town Hua Shan is located. We missed our original train because of a confusion with the time…Not my fault! Anyway, because of that we did not have tickets with seats on the one we finally got on. For about twenty minutes we managed to pretend like we belonged in two seats while others filed in and stood around in the cramped compartment. Eventually our luck ran out, though. Someone with a ticket number matching (my stolen) seat booted me out and I had to stand. Xiao Ming managed to hang on to her seat and the two of us ended up sharing it for the rest of the journey. The whole ride took about an hour and a half or two. It was my first time on a train.

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At the base of the mountain chain, and the entrance to the site, the jagged, sword-tipped peaks were too far away to be intimidating, but the place sure was pretty. Xiao Ming and I ambled about in the welcome/info center, a state-of-the-art, artistically designed building that would be at home on the Enterprise. We paid the absurdly expensive tickets to get into the mountain and then grabbed some lunch at one of the restaurants on the bottom floor. We had just missed a group departing for the mountain, so the center was mostly empty. As I’ve mentioned in different ways before: that doesn’t happen much in China. It’s one of those things I just can’t get around—I don’t like big crowds. I don’t even go to the stores here unless I absolutely have to. I will wait until all my resources at home are completely tapped before braving the throngs and overly heated supermarkets…I digress…

wandering around like an idiot...Or, in Chines, Ben Dan (dumb egg)...
wandering around like an idiot…Or, in Chines, Ben Dan (dumb egg)…Mts. in the background there…

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A shuttle bus took us up to the cable cars. The ride up through the base of the mountain was not what I expected. The shuttle driver reminded me of the van driver I had on the way back to Chiang Mai from Pai, a few months ago in Thailand. Both of them took the curves at ridiculous speeds and seemed to have forgotten what the brake was used for. Homicidal driving was not what captured my attention, though. It was the mountain. Rising up on all sides of the shuttle, the mountain seemed to just explode from the ground and shoot up into the clouds. Peering out of the windows while being jerked left and right as we rounded curves, I felt like I was looking straight up at skyscrapers. The peaks touched the sky like sword points being raised in celebration. I tried to take some pictures, but none could really do the scene any justice.

We walked up to the cable car place and weaved through the empty metal guide things that people have to walk around when they’re in lines…what are those damn things called? As we entered the actual building part I caught the screen of one of the TVs hanging from the ceiling. Avril, from at least eight years ago, belting one out. No worries. No one paid her any mind.

The cable car ride up through the mountains brought us even closer to those sharp peaks. We boarded the car along with three others. As we ascended one of the others, a middle-aged woman, buried her face in her husband’s shoulder. He joked with her, saying we were going to fall and that if the wind picked up we’d all drop. Most of us laughed, but it was easy to see that the woman had a genuine fear of heights. I loved being up that high. I kept leaning over close to the glass to get different views, but once I looked straight down at the cars that trailed behind us I got a bit dizzy. The angle, movement, and small space of the cable car kinda had that affect.

I know, I know…why didn’t we just climb up the mountain? That option was available to us, but we just didn’t have the time. We needed to catch a bus back by six, and even at the top, it takes hours to hike along the ridges and peaks. Taking the cable car saved us time and got us to the wonderful scenery faster.

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As one of China’s Five Sacred Mountains, Hua Shan is pretty famous. But it’s also considered dangerous. Xiao Ming’s father told her about how tourists die every year along the hike up the mountain. The narrow walkways, sharp angles and paths, they claim lives all the time apparently. That may be true, but our experience up and around the sacred mountain proved relatively uneventful.

The views were great, though. Up and down the peaks we hiked, snapping shots and resting to enjoy the scenery a lot. My thoughts drifted in and out of focus, tossed about, no doubt, by the wind and the simple beauty and history that surrounded me.

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Hua Shan Top View

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We bumped into two familiar faces, two of the girls who’d gone on the Terra Cotta tour with us. We chatted and they told us we still had several more peaks to see before we had to turn back around.

Along the way up you can see thousands of little locks with Chinese messages carved into them hanging from the guard chains. These messages contain names, hopes, desires, and even lovers’ names. People buy them, carve their special message, and then lock them where they want. They are given a key and a little note that describes the location of their lock. The hope is that one day you can come back and claim it if you want. Xiao Ming bought one and put her parents’ names on it. She said that she hopes one day they can make it back and unlock it together.

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Then, at one of the peaks, Xiao Ming bought me a sword. A bit paradoxically, the swords are cheaper at the top than they are at the base. It’s illegal to own guns in China, and in the Liaoning Province in the NE of China even knives aren’t that common, but in the Shaanxi province and around Xi’an, they are everywhere. For the last few days I had been seeing booths and stores with swords of all description. I have loved swords ever since I saw the first Highlander years and years ago, and even have a small collection in America. Seriously, I even tracked down the dragon katana that Connor McCloud uses. So when Xiao Ming asked me which one I liked I checked them out and told her. I never thought she’d say, “Okay, let’s wrap ‘er up.” When she began negotiating with the guy sellin’ them I butted in and tried to stop her, but she carried on until the two had come to an agreeable price. After that I still tried to tell her it wasn’t worth it, that I didn’t need it, that it was too much, blah, blah, blah….To no avail. A few minutes later we were trekking back along the path we’d come, sword in tow.

On the way down we took some pictures, and since I was one of the few white guys on the mountain, AND I happened to be carrying a sword, people wanted to get in on the picture taking. I took about three or four pictures with different people, even letting one of them hold the sword, and then we got a few of our own.

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Ever since my hiking trip with my dad along the Great Smokey Mountains I’ve noticed a difference in the endurance of my knees. Up is no problem. Down is where the knees wanna just give out. It takes a while before any discomfort flares up, but it eventually does, reminding me that my old neighbor was right: jumping off roofs and doing flips out of trees as a teen has finally caught up to me.

We made it to the cable car place and descended, taking in the change of angle. Rising through the peaks was still more dramatic, but coming down through them also had its appeal.

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On our way down the walkway we sat down on one of the benches lining the path, and I finished off the rest of the sandwich from our earlier lunch. As the other people filed out down the path we caught a few of them glancing at us. Stares are just something you have to get used to as an Expat, but these stares and conversations were even more specific. I understood some of it, phrases like, “Foreigner with sword,” and “look.” I asked Xiao Ming to clarify.

“They’re saying, ‘Why does the foreigner think he deserves the sword?’ They’re referencing the old stories.”

Of course I was annoyed and wanted to use my limited Chinese to ask them, “What are you looking at?” but Xiao Ming gave me a better phrase: Jiao Liang Yi Xia (roughly: let’s compare). It’s a phrase that kungfu fighters used to begin a fight or contest of ability.

Once off the mountain and back at the train station we encountered the first of what would become many “sword transporting” issues. First off, before stepping into the place I handed the sword to Xiao Ming. It was in a box and a red string was tied to either end of it so you could sling it over your shoulder, but I’m white. And in China. Carrying a sword is just too much attention. Giving her the box just bypassed some of the superficial issues that could come our way.

I set my bag on the security belt and it passed through just fine. I walked ahead of Xiao Ming and tried to seem nondescript to the point of just plain old ignorable…By the way, never, ever works here. As soon as the sword passed through the woman behind the scanner sat bolt upright. She motioned to the box and then to the other security guard. I didn’t make eye contact with either one. Instead, I grabbed it and set it against the railing like I didn’t have the faintest clue what they were on about. Then the male guard came over to it and asked in Chinese what was inside it. I shrugged my shoulders and told him in English that I didn’t understand. I made a gesture to Xiao Ming and grabbed the sword and headed off in her direction. I gave her a heads up when I got to her just before the guard came over.

Xiao Ming told them it was a fake sword for her father, a gift for an old sick man. It was tied up tight and was not dangerous, at all. They relented and let us through under the condition that we didn’t open it or swing it around on the train. I kind of just stared at him when he said that. I wanted to ask what the hell fun could I have with it on a train if I couldn’t lop it around and do some permanent damage to body parts, but I didn’t…

Anyway, once we got back to Xi’an we took another bus to get us on the same block as the hostel. Before heading back we picked up some newspaper and tape. At the hostel we taped the sword up, using about five newspapers and an entire roll of packaging tape. Hopefully having it sealed up would limit the amount of bullcrap we’d have to deal with on the rest of our trip (barely any help, is the answer to that one).

We grabbed some more food at the hostel, but the atmosphere had changed. As soon as you walked in, the place felt more like a club. On the second floor a live band played and a Chinese girl who sounded like Sarah Mclachlin sang songs in Mandarin that I had no hope of understanding. Customers who were definitely not staying at the hostel came and went, ordering food, beer, smoking, and chatting loudly. The Han Tang Hostel is a strange and interesting place. They play American country music in the mornings, alternative international ballads in the evenings, and on our last night there they had a Chinese girl with a voice combo of Mclachlin and Pink. And the staff stayed friendly and helpful the whole time, even the over-worked girl from that first day maintained a scary amount energy and patience at all times. She even laughed at my jokes in Chinese. I spoke Chinese, she didn’t laugh in Chinese…

But we were leaving in the morning. Off to Luoyang in the morning, to see the famous Longman Grottoes. We packed our bags, and turned in for an early night. I dreamed of cutting things with my new sword.

The next morning, on our walk out of the hostel, we ran into Lady Jia Jia. She smiled at us broadly and wished us happy travels.

Xi’an Day One

I brought a new notebook with me on my recent trip to parts of the Shaanxi and Henan Provinces. It fit in my jacket’s inside pocket, and even at seven-thirty am, after having already been up a few hours, I was taking notes as the plane ambled around on the tarmac. As the plane lifted off I asked my friend how to say things like, “board plane,” “fly in the sky,” “gate,” “take off,” “land,” and “turbulence.”

I’m not afraid of flying in the least, but now that I’m older I prefer the aisle seat over the window. More leg room.

I feel like I could write about plane experiences all day long. Especially as a foreigner on an Asian airline. I go back and forth about how to talk to the flight attendants—Chinese or English—in my head, and no matter what I choose, they use the opposite to respond. I don’t get it, either. People are fun, too. Just like anywhere in mainland China, if there is the slightest chance of standing in a line everyone and their brother will fight to the death to be the first in it. Of course all this accomplishes is a long, crowded, irritated line where people are just holding their carry-ons and staring at one another for ten minutes.

The other day I looked up how to say, “Don’t push me,” surprised I had never used it before. In fact, to this day, I’ve never heard anyone utter the words. It reminds me of the time I asked my friend how to request privacy when speaking with a doctor. She looked at me, baffled for a moment, and then told me that Mandarin doesn’t have that word. She was serious.

Now of course they do have the word for privacy, and even a really indirect way to ask for it, but the fact is, when asked, she had a hard time thinking of a response, and it wasn’t due to poor English skills. It’s because they just don’t consider an individual person’s personal space. I haven’t gotten a chance to ask for privacy with a doc, but next time I need to see one you can be sure I’ll be shooing the half a dozen strangers lurking in the room out of it.

I digress.

The trip from Dalian to Xi’an, one of the ancient capitols of China, was pretty quick. Only about 2 hours.

Just like in Kunming, a shuttle bus from the airport got us to the hostel. This hostel, like many of them, is located on a skinny back street that many would just pass by without a second glance. I like narrow streets. People are forced to interact, children play in them and tangle with the “adults,” and when a little restaurant has an outdoor area almost everyone on the block is there chatting and eating. Skinny streets have a lot of life.

The Han Tang Hostel, not to be confused with the Han Tang Inn located 100 meters away on the same street, is a hostel to contend with. You walk in and realize you could be in a bar, restaurant, or some snazzy hotel, not just a haven for the weary trekker.

Every week the place hosts “events and outings” for their guests at no cost. A trip to the Muslim Quarter, Tour of the Wild Goose Pagoda, Dumpling Making Night, Live Music, etc. The food is Western style, and even though it’s a bit overpriced, it’s freakin’ good. The rooms themselves are comfortable, too. You’ve got your normal choices: dorm of 4-10 beds, doubles, or privates. Always go with the dorms, guys. Why travel if you’re just going to be a strange loner. The beds are bunk-beds that are almost too comfy, and the shower is AMAZING. It was better than two of my old apartments’. Just saying. Friendly staff with buttloads of intel on the area, and ridiculous work ethic. Seriously. One girl who checked us in around 1 pm and closed that night at midnight also opened the next day at 6 am. The girl’s a beast.

We dropped our stuff in our room and got cleaned up. Ever notice when you travel you just feel like you need a shower even if you took a shower that morning? Once we were good to go we checked out a few nearby sights. We got to the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower, two largely remodeled and refurbished structures that served true and useful purposes back in the day, around the Ming Dynasty. Today they are about a block apart and a large, busy intersection separate the two. A fancy looking shopping center sits behind the Drum Tower. At both there are ancient relics from the past, as far back as the mythical Xia and Shang Dynasties, about 5,000 years old. to a big bell...
Me…next to a big bell…

At the Bell Tower there is a complete replica set of bells that were dug up from the first emperor’s tomb, Qin Shi Huang. We caught a Bell ringin’ show, complete with a few other traditional Chinese instruments. They played two legitimate Chinese songs, and then on the third one I found myself humming along…because they were playing “Old Lang Syne,” the New Year’s Song. Yup.

The replica set.
The replica set.

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At the Drum Tower it was much the same, except for, you know, the show being a Drum show.

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That in the distance there is the Bell Tower....
That in the distance there is the Drum Tower….

But at both places I picked up some souvenirs. Two that I got for my mother and brother I picked up from a woman with Ox Bone necklaces. She was a tough old bird who I worked on for a bit before I got her from 63 Rmb to 35. There was this really cool eagle carving that had the head of an eagle and the bottom part was a talon. It reminded me of my brother’s tattoo, so that was his. My mom’s was a necklace that had the two characters for “Peace,” “ping,” and “an.” The woman wanted 28 for my bro’s and 35 for my mom’s.

We had scanned them without much comment accept to ask the price before going to see one of the towers, but then we came back on our way out. It’s my “Haggle Policy” to never come back to a merchant once you’ve already walked away, but since I hadn’t really initiated a negotiation with her the first time, I let the rule slide. Plus, I wanted them.

I started looking around at other carvings I knew I didn’t want, asking prices and holding them up to my neck. I eventually asked about both of the ones I did want, but passed over them nonchalantly. When I picked up one (that I didn’t want) and asked about the price I tried to haggle her down without much success. I gave in easily and set it down. Then, acting like it was my consolation prize, and catching the look in her eye that said, “Buy something, Pleeease,” I picked up the eagle one and asked. I asked her to come down a bit and she did, a little. I then made a move to group two together for a lower price. She was for it, but still wanted too much. When I finally snatched up the two I actually wanted we had been going around for about ten minutes, with me “almost” walking away. She was eager to sell something at this point.

Being a foreigner speaking and negotiating in Chinese, I had brought a bit of a crowd to the table. This wasn’t good. She was representing China now. So she didn’t want to bend. So I cooled it, and bided my time. Once most of the others had wandered off I began talking to my friend about how these would make good gifts for my mother and brother. The woman perked up then. The Chinese are Big into family. You have no idea. So then she started helping looking for other nice ones and we reentered into the wheelin’ and dealin’. When I got her down to 45 she was pretty hard looking. She kept waving her hands, and my friend said that was the best. It wasn’t getting’ any prettier.

Then I told the woman in Chinese what I told the man in Thailand using English. “35 and I’ll buy these right now.” I added that they weren’t for me, but for family, and….she caved.

And then I had them carve “Xi’an” into the back of my brother’s necklace just for good measure…and the memories.

My friend couldn’t believe I got her so low without the merchant being royally pissed, but I knew it was fine. She wouldn’t have kept talking if she wasn’t willing. And plus, in the time we stood there she sold a bunch all because we were creating a crowd.

Don’t look at me like that; saving money on vacation is a tricky endeavor.

We wandered around the streets then, taking in some local scents and scenes. Another skinny street with a bunch of merchants, restaurants, and overhanging trees…and people, people, people. There’s an idiom in China that goes, “People mountain, people sea.” It basically means there’s a lot of flippin’ people. But you already knew that.

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We headed to the Great Mosque next. It wasn’t far, just a few blocks away. We had to shimmy and shuffle through tightly packed alleys with a million merchants hawking their wares. Everything from imitation Dynasty currency to T-shirts sporting Obama with communist slogans on them could be seen. Once we got through it all, though, we came to the “Great” Mosque. With a name that literally brags about its awesomeness, I was expecting something…greater.

"Wei Ren Min Fu Wu" "Dedicate service to the people." This is a phrase good ol' Mao made well known. It's a phrase still used by the military.
“Wei Ren Min Fu Wu” “Dedicate service to the people.” This is a phrase good ol’ Mao made well known. It’s a phrase still used by the military.

The Mosque is definitely an ancient, meaningful, still-in-use place of worship, but when you hear Mosque certain images are conjured. What I saw fit none of them. The whole place is Chinese style. Built in a long rectangular shape with big open-air courtyards and symbolic gazebos and stone tablets, the place looked more like what you’d see in an old Kung-fu movie, not the Middle East.

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In that notebook I mentioned earlier I had a running commentary on the trip. Let’s see what I wrote about the GM: “Blond children Kung-fu fighting in the Great Mosque, Muslims in business suits, and a wooden sign protruding over the top of the wall proclaiming free wi-fi at a nearby café.”

The kids were with one of the very few Western families we saw. The bother and sister were running around the courtyards chopping at each other. The business men seemed to have just finished up with a meeting and were walking around in a herd. The wooden sign peaked over the stone walls of the Mosque and made sure we knew we were in the 21st century.

Afterward, we hiked it to the South Gate of the City Walls. Xi’an’s City Walls are, I think, the only fully intact city walls. The existing wall was started by the Ming Dynasty in 1370. It encircles 5.4 sq mi, a much smaller part of the city than the original. The wall measures 8.5 mi in circumference, 39 ft in height, and 49–59 ft in thickness at the base.

We got there around 6:45 and bought a ticket to get in and walk on the walls, but renting bikes and riding along the whole perimeter was our goal. Problem was, the rental place turned us away because they were closing at 7:30 and it takes 100 minutes to cover the whole wall. We went back down, told the other people, the gate people, the problem, and they just said we should have still been able to rent the bikes up until 7:30 with no issue. We ended up wasting 15 minutes arguing with them to either give us our money back or just let us ride the damn bikes. It was actually a good set up because the gate people sold tickets to get in and walk on the walls. Technically they had fulfilled their side of the bargain. The bike people were a separate organization that owed us nothing.

In the end, they rented the bikes to us for 50 minutes and grumbled about just wanting to get off work. We took the bikes and zipped off into the fading light as evening truly descended. It felt great riding on the walls at night when no one else was there. We could even see a few stars, something that’s actually more amazing than you might think…especially in a Chinese city.

Xi'an and Henan 077

We rode along for a while, picking up speed and just watching as parts of the city passed by. And then, around 7:45, we peaked behind us and noticed an electric cart following us. We kept going, but eventually they caught up and told us we needed to hop on with them and ride back. They wanted to get going. The whole time they’re talking to us I’m circling them on the bike. I ask my friend what time it is, and then I say, “Okay, see you back there.” I take off back in the direction we had come and dart through the night. I ride as fast as my legs can take me, looking back just a few times. The cart didn’t even come close to me. The cool air is circulating in and out of my lungs, my legs are burning, and I’m fairly certain the chain on the bike is about to bust any second…but I keep going. Something about the whole hassle with them closing earlier than they should have, the way they just were jerking us around…it propels me like a bat out of hell.

I made it back to the bike rental place and had enough time to hop off and put the bike back in the line where it belonged before the cart rolled up. The two workers look like they want to lop me off the side of the wall, but my friend just smiles at me and says, “You’re awesome.” I ask her what happened when I took off and she says they were irritated, but when they tried to catch up to me they couldn’t. Immature? Probably. Would I do it again? You bet I would.

Of course that night I began coughing. It would be the start of a two week cold that I’m pretty sure I deserved.

When we got back to the hostel we found that we shared the room with a Chinese guy, a Chinese couple, and two Norwegian girls. With day one down, we grabbed some western food, more showers, and slept like babies in the bunk beds.

Day Two would be the day we saw the Bing Ma Yong, Terra Cotta Warriors.