There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Xi'an: Part 1 of The Chinese Silk Road

Central Xi’an still sits contentedly within its massive fourteenth century walls, and it is this rather than the population – variously quoted at 3, 6 or 10 million - that makes it seem far less of a mega-city than Shanghai.

The airport is thirty kilometres from town. Four years ago we arrived in the evening and took a taxi along brand new motorways, deserted except for an army of toll collectors. We drove into the outer suburbs down a long straight road lined with low buildings. Outside every one was a group of snooker tables where young men practised potting in pools of orange light. This time we arrived just after lunch, an hour ahead of schedule, so we were pleased that Zhou Li, who would be our guide for the next day’s trip to the mountains, was already there to greet us. This time the roads were busier, but the tollbooths no less numerous. Zhou Li happily demonstrated that, had talking been an Olympic sport, she would easily have made the Chinese team and we had absorbed a long and informative lecture by the time we reached the city walls.

The walls form a perfect rectangle some 4km by 2km. The longer sides are orientated east-west, the shorter north-south, and the streets inside are laid out on a rigid grid. Here, if ever there was one, is a mathematician’s city. Built originally in 1370 of rammed earth, the walls were faced with brick in 1568. Being 12 metres high and 18 metres thick, the chances of not noticing them are minimal. A watchtower guards each corner and a fortress-like gate adorns each side. There were also drawbridges over a moat. The drawbridges have long gone but sections of the moat remain, their banks dotted with anglers. The state of the water would not encourage me to eat their catch.
Fishing in the moat, Xian 2004
The demands of modern traffic have created far more than the four original perforations in the wall, but it remains a formidable barrier, and getting into or out of the city at peak time demands more patience than most Chinese drivers want to show. Inside there is often gridlock, but building restrictions mean you do not feel lost at the bottom of a vast canyon.

The South Gate, Xian City Walls, 2004
It was on this site, a millennium and a half before the walls were built, that Qin Shi Huang established Changan, the first capital of his newly united China. The Emperor Qin is not an easy man to like. He was ruthless, as any successful warlord must be; he drove his people hard to build version one of the Great Wall, and when that was done, he drove them harder to build a vast army of terracotta figures to guard his tomb. We had seen the Terracotta Army on our earlier visit, but it is impossible to write about Xi’an without mentioning it. What is, perhaps, most remarkable is that you can see many examples of similar grave goods in the city’s Shaanxi Regional Museum. Men of power and influence were in the habit of taking small armies, their house and servants, even farmyards, complete with strutting cockerels and snuffling pigs, to their graves with them. But the others are dolls’ house size. Only Qin had an army of full sized soldiers, horses and chariots; only Qin had as many soldiers as a real army. What an ego!

Terracotta Warriors, Xian
Like many such monsters, he cowed not only his enemies but also his descendants, and soon after his death in 210 BC, the provinces rose in revolt. By 206, his heirs had been swept aside and the Han dynasty established. It was under the Han that Changan, became one of the world’s great metropolises.

The city was as large and powerful as contemporary Rome, and it was hardly surprising that these two great empires bracketing either end of the Eurasian landmass should establish trading links. Unlike Rome, the Chinese empire did not fall to barbarians and whilst Europe had its dark ages, Changan had its golden period. A Tang dynasty census in the eighth century recorded almost two million inhabitants, making it by far the world’s largest city.

Changan lost its status as China’s capital in the disunity that followed the fall of the Tang around 960. Under the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) its name was changed from Changan (Perpetual Peace) to Xi’an (Western Peace). Given the warlike nature of some its rulers there is irony in the names, though today the main threat to peace comes from the incessant and unruly traffic.

The one major site we missed on our previous visit was the Bell Tower, not because we could not find it - it defines the centre of the city - but because it was covered in scaffolding and boarded up. This time it was open, so we paid our fee and climbed the steps from the underground shopping mall into the ancient tower.

The Bell Tower, Xian

The Bell Tower is a typical wooden construction of the Ming period, standing on a brick platform in the middle of a traffic island. It was built around the same time as the city walls were faced with brick. The tower’s original purpose was to hold a bell that was clanged at dawn, telling the citizens to rise. Facing it, two hundred metres across a paved park, is the Drum Tower. Here a drum was beaten to inform everybody that it was dusk and time to go home. Having two different towers with their two different sounds suggests that either Ming dynasty citizens could not tell dawn from dusk, or that somebody was interested in prestige building projects.

The Drum Tower, just across the 'park'
The walkway round the platform provides impressive views down the main traffic arteries of the city.

There is also a large bell, where Chinese children were queuing up to dress in Ming costume and pretending to hit it.
The Bell after the children had gone away
The Bell Tower, Xian
Inside, the carillon is impressive, though a modern copy of the original. The large bells are recognisably bell-shaped but the small ones could only be Chinese. After a glance at the exhibition upstairs we returned to the carillon for the hourly performance.

Two energetic young ladies struck the smaller bells whilst an older woman with a large stick strode around poking the larger bells at appropriate moments. Three more musicians played assorted stringed and wind instruments, one of them blowing into a complex array of pipes like a miniature church organ held in two hands. Finally, a couple of dancers arrived to add to the scene. To western ears, the sounds were strange, but pleasant, though the finale, a rendition of Auld Lang Syne, seemed deeply weird.

Blowing into a miniature church organ
The Bell Tower, Xian
For dinner we set off to eat Xiang Xiang Da Pan Ji (Fragrant, Fragrant Big Plate Chicken). The eponymous restaurant specialises in a dish involving a whole chicken chopped, roasted, placed on a bed of noodles and then covered in an aromatic sauce. It was mentioned in our guidebook and, more significantly, thoroughly recommended by our daughter and son-in-law, whose judgement I hold in high regard.

We jumped in a taxi and showed the Chinese characters to the driver. He thought for a moment, then shrugged and shook his head. ‘Changan Nan Lu’ I said, telling him the street. Unfortunately, it helps to be English to understand my Mandarin.

We returned to the hotel and asked the receptionist to write the street name in Chinese. ‘I don’t know this restaurant’ she said as she wrote.

Undaunted – well, partially daunted - we returned to the street and found another taxi. The driver looked no less perplexed than the first, but he set off heading purposefully south. Unfortunately, Changan Nan Lu is the main street heading out from the south gate and is several miles long. As an address, it was less than pinpoint.

After driving a decent distance beyond the gate, he slowed so that he could inspect the signs over the many shops and restaurants. Then he stopped and phoned his office. Apparently, nobody there knew this restaurant either. We drove on a bit more and then he phoned somebody else.

The driver was becoming distinctly uneasy. Deciding to put him out of his misery and cut our losses, we paid him off and clambered from the taxi. He felt under an obligation to complete the journey and by baling out we were making him lose face, but I could think of nothing else to do.

Changan Nan Lu is a wide thoroughfare and there were plenty of people about. Beside the road was a large open area, recently cleared of buildings, where an impromptu market was establishing itself. We had seen frequent excavations along the roadside and some considerable piles of rubble.

Changan Nan Lu, from the Bell Tower to the distant South Gate
We walked to the next corner where there was another line of restaurants, none of them called Xiang Xiang Da Pan Ji. A friendly local accosted us, asking what we were looking for. She too had never heard of the restaurant. She spoke to a couple of street traders and then a passer-by, but by now it was clear we were wasting our time. ‘Perhaps’ she said in impressive English, ‘it has gone.’ She gestured at the excavations and piles of rubble, ‘they are building a new metro line and many buildings have been demolished.’

We crossed a footbridge and walked a couple of blocks back north, but without much hope. There were plenty of restaurants, some looked inviting, but none were Xiang Xiang Da Pan Ji. We debated choosing one at random, but in the end took another taxi back to the centre.

On our first trip to China in 2004, we were fascinated by the way we found ourselves stepping from First World to Third and back again just by turning a corner or crossing a road. There was no better example than the 200 metre walk from the chic consumerism of the Century Ginwa Centre underneath the Bell Tower, to Xi’an’s Muslim quarter. That this brief stroll also involved passing the Ming elegance of the Drum Tower and a branch of McDonalds just added to the bizarre richness.

We took this walk again. In the evening the main street of the Muslim quarter offers an array of kebab stalls and other eateries, and if Xiang Xiang Da Pan Ji was off the menu, we would have a kebab.

Rounding the corner by McDonalds, we found ourselves confronted with a brand new brightly lit arch bearing the words ‘Welcome to Xi’an Islamic Street’. The Third World had receded since our last visit.

The rather tarted up Muslim  Quarter, Xian
There are Hui communities in most Chinese cities. Allegedly descended from Arab soldiers, they look much like any other Chinese except the men wear small white cylindrical hats and some of the women wear headscarves. There are thirty thousand Hui in Xi’an, living mainly in the tightly packed streets of the Muslim quarter and worshipping at the Great Mosque, a building Islamic in function but entirely Chinese in design.

Just as ‘Steak’ on a British menu implies ‘beef steak’, ‘meat’ in a Chinese menu implies pork. The Hui are not always the most observant of Muslims, but eating pork would be a step too far, and the default meat in the Muslim quarter is mutton. The scruffy street of grubby kebabis where we had eaten four years ago is now a brightly lit bazaar, with neat little kebab shops jostling for space with bigger, smarter, air-conditioned restaurants.

Eating kebabs in the Muslim quarter
Xian 2004
We pulled the meat from the scimitar-like skewers and ate it with flat Muslim bread at a table set up in the road – they did not want us in their little restaurant, they wanted us prominently displayed outside. The meat was tender and flavoursome and the Hui are relaxed enough about their religion to sell the beer needed to wash it down. We ate well, but it I was not Xiang Xiang Da Pan Ji.

The Bell Tower at night as we strolled back from the Muslim Quarter

Zhou Li arrived next morning to take us on our expedition to Hua Shan (Flower Mountain) one of China’s five sacred mountains. Hua Shan is 120km east of Xi’an and we set off along a motorway which could have taken us the whole 900km to the coast.

The land was remarkably flat, but we were expecting to find ourselves entering a more mountainous region soon. After 40km we by-passed a substantial city. ‘Where’s that?’ I asked Zhou Li. ‘Weinan,’ she replied, ‘it belongs to Xi’an’. Population figures quoted for Xi’an vary considerably this explained why. The city has, I think, 3 million people, then there is the metropolitan area and finally, to achieve the 10 million figure, they include the surrounding counties. Calling Weinan part of Xi’an is like calling Worcester part of Birmingham.

Over a 100Km into the journey, we were still in a broad, flat, plain. Hua Shan has five peaks shaped, if you have enough imagination, like the petals of a flower. All the peaks are around 2000m, rather too big, I thought, to hide in a heat haze.

We had left the motorway and almost reached the park area before a mountain loomed out of the mist.

There were plenty of places in the official car park and as many spaces at the official restaurant where we went for an early lunch. Zhou Li ordered for us after only the briefest consultation. The food was good, although her choices were a touch bland. There was also enough for six. She and the driver ate separately so we did our duty by polishing off a generous third of what was on the table but still felt uneasy about the quantity wasted. This is, however, the Chinese way. If guests eat all the food offered, then clearly they have not been given enough, so to avoid losing face the host must grossly over-provide. Being brought up in the aftermath of wartime rationing with the phrase ‘nice clean plate’ ringing in our ears, we had some cultural adapting to do.

Hua Shan, definitely the official place to start
The shuttle bus from the visitor centre wound up a narrow defile into what felt like the heart of the mountain. We all decamped at a small square and bought some more tickets, this time for the cable car. We joined a long queue of cheery Chinese in baseball caps and cowboy hats snaking their way through the metal barriers with encouraging speed.

The journey was spectacular. We swung over no huge spaces as you can in the Alps, but travelled up a rocky funnel and past huge vertical slabs of bare stone where the occasional tree had forced its way through a gap and was hanging on for dear life. We were among the precipitous faces and strange vegetation of Chinese landscape painting.
p through a rocky funel

I decided to speak to Zhou Li on the subject of food: ‘Is it true that the Chinese think all westerners hate chillies?’ I asked, realising as I spoke that by asking about perceptions rather than the truth of those perceptions I was burying a linguistic land mine under the conversation.

‘Yes,’ she answered, stamping firmly on the firing mechanism. Most Chinese tour guides speak excellent English and Zhou Li was one of the best. However, as very few have the opportunity to travel and mix freely with native speakers, their listening skills are often far less developed. This counts double when you are trying to explain something entirely contrary to all received wisdom.

Mountain Dwelling on a Summer's Day
by Wang Yuanqi (1642-1715)
National Palace Museum, Taipei

From the top of the cable car a series of paths led off in various directions, most of which could be described us ‘up’.

From the top all paths lead up
None of the signs meant anything to us, so we chose a path at random and strolled along it. After a while the way narrowed into a groove cut into the rock face with a chains on the outer edge; the stream of people going our way negotiating passing places with the stream coming the other. After this the path widened until we reached a broad rock platform. The only way forward now was up a vertical face into which had been carved a set of a dozen steps, each 50cm high and the width one’s toes. Chains had been draped down the cliff and every man in China, his wife, children and grandmother was shinning up and down as though it was the most natural thing in the world. Lynne did not look at the obstacle for long. ‘No chance!’ she said, which conveniently let me off the hook.

We retraced our steps and tried another route. This soon involved an airy ridge of bare rock guarded by low chains on either side. Although exposed it was wide enough to be completely safe, though not quite wide enough to feel completely safe. ‘No chance!’ said Lynne again with a tone of absolute certainty.

An airy ridge of bare rock
We did, however, get an excellent view of the ‘Heavenward Ladder’ over the intervening gorge. This kilometre long ladder is tacked onto a bare spine of rock leading to the North Peak. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of people were swarming up and down what looked from our distance to be a totally exposed, near vertical, set of wooden steps.
The Heavenward Ladder, Huashan

We never made it to any of the peaks, but we did enjoy wandering around, looking at the views and peering into the precipitous depths. We came across several stalls selling cold drinks and pieces of watermelon and a few old men staggering round under carry-poles transporting the goods to the stalls. To minimise costs some of them carry these loads all the way from the villages at the foot of the mountain - a very hard way to earn a very meagre living.

We rejoined Zhou Li at the cable car terminal where an old man was leaning on his carry-poles singing Chinese folk songs. He had a strong, clear voice and we stayed to listen. Doubtless, he made more from his singing than his carrying, although when it came to collecting money he looked almost embarrassed.

On the way down we were joined in our car by four young men who had been up the mountain early and had done all five peaks. Though obviously full of youth and vigour, they had no special clothing or equipment. They told us they had heard of a fatal fall from one of the paths earlier in the day. Maybe the rumour was not true, but it probably was. I hoped the cable car engineers took safety a little more seriously than their clients.

Just one of the five peaks, Huashan
At the bottom, the queue for the cable car was several times bigger than when we went up, though still boisterous and cheerful.

From the point of view of conquering peaks, our day had been a failure, but it had been an enjoyable and very typically Chinese day out. Of course, Chinese people do go to see the Terracotta Warriors and the other major sites, but they are on the itinerary of every tour group, so European and American visitors usually outnumber the locals. This concentration of wealth attracts the most desperate street traders who see tourists only as walking wallets. The combination of aggressive traders and rich people pathologically frightened of being ripped off brings out the worst in both cultures. It also generates an army of tour managers dedicated to shielding foreigners from unwanted attentions and effectively keeping them in tourist ghettoes. Hua Shan, on the other hand, attracts few westerners and no rip-off merchants. Travelling as ordinary people among ordinary people, we met only cheerfulness, helpfulness and courtesy – not to mention a frightening disregard for personal safety.

More ropcks like a lanscape painting
Xi’an railway station occupies what should be a section of the wall, but at a time when the walls represented nothing but the bad old imperial days, 500m were removed to make way for the trains. Today this looks a poor decision but there is no way back. Next morning our cases passed through the X-ray machines without question and, with a little help from Zhou Li, we found our way to the soft sleeper waiting room and then, but only after the train had arrived, onto the platform. The Chinese, often so cavalier about health and safety, never let a passenger onto a platform when a train is coming in or going out.

We settled into our four-berth compartment and waited to see who our travelling companions would be. Having travelled this way throughout China, Russia and Mongolia, we have had some pleasant and interesting companions, and, so far, no bad experiences.

A few minutes before departure time we were joined by a respectable looking middle-aged couple.

‘Ni hao,’ we said.

‘Not Ni hao,’ the man replied, ‘we are Japanese.’

Sadly, they spoke little English and after ‘sayonara’, my only Japanese consisted of unhelpful words like ‘kamikaze’ and ‘hara-kiri’. International relations were, however, maintained by a great deal of smiling and the exchange of English biscuits and Japanese raisins.

After a while, the man got out his map and told us they were going to Zhangye. I pointed out Jiayuguan, the next town on the line, as our destination.

‘You know Tunku?’ he asked.

I shook my head, the name was unfamiliar. He rifled in his bag, produced a Japanese guidebook and showed me pictures of huge sand dunes. It looked suspiciously like Dunhuang. I suggested this, but it meant no more to him than ‘Tunku’ had to me.

He returned to the map. ‘Tunku’ he said, pointing out a small town. Underneath the Chinese characters he was reading as ‘Tunku’ was the pinyin word ‘Dunhuang’. I told him we were going to ‘Tunku’ after Jiayuguan and it looked very interesting. They had obviously been discussing this earlier, and after a little more debate they decided to skip Zhangye and go straight to Dunhuang.

I was unsure if you could change a ticket once you were on the train, but he called the carriage attendant and opened negotiations. It became clear that his Mandarin was no better than his English, but he was not prepared to give up easily. Pulling out a pad, he wrote some characters on it. The carriage attendant nodded and wrote an answer. A written conversation followed, as if between two deaf people.

I was unsure of how conclusive the negotiation had been, but I was impressed that it had happened at all.

‘You cannot speak Chinese, but you can write it?’ I asked. ‘Yes, a little,’ he said ‘is similar Japanese.’

I have always found it amazing that Mandarin and Cantonese, two completely distinct languages, are identical when written. The same is true of the various, quite different, dialects spoken across China, which explains why all television programmes are subtitled. Although my Japanese friend read two symbols as ‘Tunku’ and the Chinese carriage attendant read them as ‘Dunhuang’ that did not indicate they had different meanings. Chinese and Japanese, it seems, share enough characters to enable some limited communication; and communication there had surely been as for the next few hours our companions were visited by a succession of self-important people with peaked caps - a type never in short supply on a Chinese train.



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