Pingyao to Xi'an, China

September 9-16, 2009

2000-year-old life-size terra cotta warriors near Xi'an.


It's a drizzly day in Pingyao, where cobbled streets reflect colorful umbrellas toted by one tour group after another. Pingyao is an amazing ancient city, designated by UNESCO as a world heritage site. Sadly, the decrepit adobe brick buildings seem to be melting in the rain, and the ceramic tiled roofs are in desperate need of repair, with tufts of grass growing in the gaps between the tiles. The city is ringed by a magnificent 14th century wall -- almost 4 miles in circumference and 33 feet high, with 72 watchtowers, each inscribed with a paragraph from Sunzi's Art of War. The wall is all original, except for a small portion which collapsed in 2004.

By early evening the tour groups depart, tacky knick knack shops close up, vegetable markets emerge, and the locals take back their city. Everyone is out on the streets, men sit in groups playing a strange checkers game with oversized pieces, teenagers munch on street food, and mobs of electric motorbikes silently cruise by.




Zheng Jia Hostel in Pingyao.

When we arrive in Pingyao the girls working at the hostel immediately befriend me. They sit close and hold my arm, struggle to teach me the correct way to hold chopsticks, and help me order food. Thanks to these little elves, we sample many famous Shānxi province noodle delicacies: dough grated into pieces for noodles, little fish-style noodles, and fried naked oats noodles -- each dish different, all delicious! (The potato straps -- super thin potato strips with sesame seeds, fermented black beans, green peppers, hot peppers, deep fried and drenched in oil -- were also pretty darn good!)

My Mandarin phrase book has been a godsend. Each day the girls glue to me searching through the phrase book, page by page, looking for words, laughing as we slowly piece together stilted conversations in Chinese and English. One afternoon, while Mark and I rest in the shade of a little pavilion just outside the wall, another sweet teenaged girl slowly inches closer and closer. We finally strike up a conversation with Alice, again, thanks to our phrase book. In moments, we realize three older Chinese folks have joined us. They keep staring at us, pointing at Mark, stroking their chins and smiling. Everyone is fascinated by Mark's silver goatee; if we had 10 yuan for every photo taken of him, we could finance this trip! Soon they are prodding Alice to ask us their burning questions: How old are you? (We were the same age.) Where are you from? Do you have children, parents? Alice is shocked and saddened when she finally understands our response to that last question, and is reluctant to translate our answer.

Suddenly, she has a brilliant new idea: Let's communicate in Pinyin! (This is the system of writing Chinese language in Latin characters, invented in the 1950's). She takes my notebook and very, very carefully, in perfect script, writes out completely unintelligible sentences for me. When I explain,Wo bu mingbai (I don't understand) she stares at me in disbelief. Who are these uneducated barbarians? Assuming she just hasn't written the letters clearly enough, she erases and re-writes the same sentence over and over again, each time with excruciating care, convinced we will understand if she writes clearly enough. After several failed attempts we finally part, smiles all around. I'm sure she had a good story to tell her family that evening!

On our last day at the hostel, Hou Li Jing, one of my little friends at the hostel, wrote in my notebook: Bu yao zou. (I don't want you to go.)



Helpful advice...




Nice painting in the Exam Museum




We wander through the impressive wooden architecture of the 14th century Confucius Temple, which now also houses the Museum of Imperial Examinations, and oddly, the Pingyao International Photography Museum.





Several photography galleries are set up in old temple rooms -- mostly Chinese historical photographs, although we can't read the captions, which are exclusively in Chinese.


While I'm busy pondering the likely time-frame for the war photographs, I suddenly I hear Liza exclaim, is this .......Ansel Adams???

Yes! Here is a jumbo-sized plaster bust of Ansel, along with a nice collection of his photographs, "Yosemite Special Edition" stamped on the mat.

Another bolt of lightning --the very last thing we expected to see here, what an odd juxtaposition!





Waiting for customers...


An overnight train ride takes us 550 km southwest from Pingyao, to Xi'an in the Shaanxi Provence. This is the site of the ancient capitol of China during the Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui, and Tang dynasties, until power shifted eastward in the 10th century. Xi'an's city walls (originally constructed in 1370) still stand, although the modern metropolis (population 4.3 million!) spreads out in all directions from the ancient core. For 40 Yuan ($6), we climb the stairs and are free to walk the 8.5 mile perimeter on top of the 40' high stone walls.
The Muslim Quarter in Xi'an has incredible street food. The fellow on the left is rolling out noodle dough to make really long noodles. In the picture up on the right, I've joined a line of locals waiting for a hot drink made with stewed pears, plums and kiwi fruit, and a strange white fungus-like thing, all delicately spiced, the perfect drink on a rainy afternoon. We bought just-cooked breads, pulled from charcoal heated tandoori ovens, loads of halvah-like peanut, walnut, and ginger sweets (we are addicts now...), dried persimmons, and deep fried tofu kebabs, dusted with salt and chili powder.




Ahhhh, we have discovered our favorite restaurant in China. It's in Xi'an, almost directly across the street from the Xiang Zimen Hostel where we stayed. It looks totally nondescript and we don't know the name. We peek in the window and see there is a good crowd, so we decide to try lunch. Wow! Every dish is delicious and ridiculously cheap; we spend 23 yuan for lunch (about $7.50) We return the next night for another feast, and find we are not alone in our review. By 6 pm there is a hungry crowd waiting out front. (That's what those little blue stools stacked in front of the restaurant are for!) This is one of those hole-in-the-wall places, where a new thin plastic film is whipped over the table for each party. (What a relief! I don't have to worry about all those little greasy bits that fall off my chopstick...) The waitress presents each customer with a vacuum packed hygienic set of dishes, and everyone has fun popping open the plastic covering. Incredibly loud BANGS! reverberate through the two-floor warren of smoke- and chatter-filled little eating spaces. Zero English is spoken.

We try chicken spiced with mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns, fresh chilies and star anise, several mouth-watering eggplant and tomato dishes, and a fantastic garlicky fresh mustard greens. The best of everything we devoured was the spicy tofu (above). When we point to the photograph of this dish on the menu, the waitress looks worried and tries to warn us away from ordering a half hot peppers, half tofu dish, fearing we will not be able to handle the heat. We insist, and are soon savoring this sublime, spicy, sensual dish, perfect when splashed down with a couple of 6 yuan (<$1) bottles of Tsing Tao. Xi'an is now solidly in the "must return to" column for future travel planning.



Xi'an's main claim to fame, and the reason for our visit here, is the "army of terra cotta warriors". Dating from 210 BC, and originally painted in vibrant colors, these remarkable life-size figures made of clay were assembled into a vast underground standing army, at the ready to guard the tomb of the first emperor of China. Discovered accidentally by a farmer drilling a well in 1974, this amazing archaeological site is estimated to contain over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which are still buried in the three pits.

The tomb was plundered and burned by a "peasant rebellion" only five years after the death of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (maybe they were pissed off after spending 40 years building it), and then compacted under the soil for over 2000 years. So unfortunately, nearly all of the warriors are fractured and broken. Today archaeologists continue to unearth and reconstruct these amazing figures.

Very exciting for us clay-obsessed folks -- now that's a ceramics project!


This kneeling archer is the only completely intact figure discovered so far.