Monday, September 12, 2011

China -- Day Four

Subtitled: To Sleep Perchance to Dream, Looking for One Good Warrior, Not So Hot Pot

Lo and behold, today I awoke at 4 a.m. for the first time, having gotten a full 5 ½ hours of sleep. I didn’t necessarily consider that a success but my tour mates cheered for me at breakfast, pointing out that that was the sum total of sleep I’d managed to get the past two nights combined, so that's progress I guess.

Breakfast here at the hotel in Xi’an definitely skewed more toward Eastern than Western cuisine. I had to hunt to find my carbs, but managed to make do with Rice Crispies, a couple different pastries and two cups of yogurt. And then Naomi and Tracy told me they’d found lychees and dragon fruit on the buffet, so I headed out for round two which would include something with a more Asian feel. See, that’s what picking my food with blinders on gets me! The lychees are good here, just like what I get in the lychee lemonade at home. The dragon fruit is actually like a kiwi only with whiter meat and a bright pinkish red skin. So that was my fruit for the day.

Alan and Stanley warned us that there’d be no scheduled lunch again today but no amount of convincing from them would have me wrapping up things from the breakfast buffet to smuggle on to the plane for lunch. Instead I hit my personal stash of protein bars, Pop Tarts and Fig Newtons. Lunch of champions, I say.

The weather dawned dry at least, although I spent about 10 minutes with a hair dryer drying out my sneakers a bit. Rather than pack still-damp jeans for the journey to Chengdu, I’m wearing them again. Long range weather forecast says it is supposed to be warmer, dryer and downright hot as we approach Shanghai this weekend. By lunch time today the sun will have found us and it is becoming increasingly warm.

Our first stop today was a local art museum and school. The guide at the museum was a cute little Chinese student with a good grasp of English and a playful sense of humor, as we were to find out. She took us on a trip through the history of Chinese art, showing us examples of folk art, like farmer art, which used propaganda to get the Communist Party’s message through (she says people nowadays laugh at that message). Also she showed us puppetry which was made from animal skin and paper cutting and carvings on clay.

As we moved to the next room, she showed us how high all the thresholds were and asked which foot should we lead with when crossing such a high threshold. It turns out men should only step over with the left foot and women should always step over with the right foot, because women are always right. She said this with a wink and a smile to Dan, the only man in our group. In the next room she told us about Empress Wu, the only female to have ever ruled China. Apparently she lived quite long and at 81 still had extremely young boyfriends. Some of us said simultaneously, “cougar” and laughed. The guide looked puzzles and said “teach me new word?” and we explained how cougar has a double meaning now in English. It seemed to me she’d be quick to use that the next time she tells Americans about Empress Wu. We also told her that “dog” and “weasel” have different meanings as well. So we did our deed for the day, educating the Chinese about American vernacular.

The last room in the museum was set up as an art studio with long tables with 10 seats, and plenty of black paper, brushes and ink. If you are hearing foreboding music in your head now, you’re on the right track. We were going to learning calligraphy. Being quite possibly the least artsy person I know, this ended up being an effort in not getting frustrated, throwing the brush and leaving. I felt the pressure when the guide came through and said “Lady, you must finish your stroke.” I thought I was done! Ugh. So instead of saying “forever”, the symbol which contains all 8 strokes of calligraphy, mine probably said “underachiever” or “you’re not done yet”. Who knows. We got to take our lessons home but I’ll be damned if it’s going on the fridge. What I will be hanging are two watercolors I bought from the local students; one is an orchid and the other is a plum tree. Of course they cost about 10% of the price I’ll have to pay to frame them, but it’s a nice souvenir nonetheless.

An interesting sidenote to the calligraphy story is that when artists does paintings of bamboo, they usually do so using only the 8 brushstrokes of calligraphy, so it is more appropriate to say they are “writing bamboo” rather than painting it.

After the museum we headed outside of Xi’an to the Terra Cotta Warriors museum. This has been so high on my bucket list for so long that I could hardly believe I was going. I’d already seen an exhibition with 10 of the soldiers in DC a couple years ago but still to see them on the site where they were found and excavated would be amazing. The warriors are guarding the tomb of the Emperor Qin, emperor of the first dynasty. Qin was a good emperor and is usually compared to Julius Caesar in terms of success, although he was also known for being sort of mean as well. Anyway, of the many things Qin did (among which were unifying the country, centralizing currency, weights and measures and linking the Great Wall together), perhaps designing his own tomb to have several thousand warriors guard it as he went on the afterlife, was one of the best, for me anyway. The “cemetery”, as Dong calls it, is over 56 square kilometers, but only three pits of warriors have been excavated for us to see. Excavation in other areas has stopped until they can determine two things: one, how to preserve the colors on the terra cotta, which fade extremely fast when exposed to oxygen, and two, how best to handle the high volumes of mercury which they find coming from Qin’s burial mound. The amount of mercury they are finding near where he’s known to be buried is so high that it would be dangerous to anyone working on the excavations.

Walking in to pit 1, despite the fact that I’ve seen so many photos of this, I was still completely breathless when I saw it all with my own eyes. Right before me were row upon row of soldiers, each one unique and each dressed for his position in the army, since the uniforms and hair styles varied whether the statue was a warrior, an archer, an officer, a general, etc. These soldiers are so unique that even the soles of their shoes were different, so there was no cookie cutter production line here. Even though I'd seen the dozen or so in DC a couple years ago, there is just something about seeing them here where they were meant to be, and realizing that there were several times more still underground just really blows my mind.

The warriors closest to the entry were completely excavated, but as I walked around the hangar (because the pit looked like a huge airplane hanger), the further from the front the less excavated the area was and fewer whole soldiers I could see. It was just stunning to look down and see pieces of soldier or horse just lying there. I was blown away. To be so completely overwhelmed by it even when I’d looked forward to it for so long was more than I could ask.

Dong did a great job showing us around pits 2 and 3, where there was even less excavation and different types of warriors. We also saw the bronze chariot that was discovered. I really expected a stop like this to be rushed like they tend to be, but we spent quite a bit of time there, over two hours and I left feeling like we had really seen it well.

We went right to the airport from there and again the luggage had been checked and we arrived just in time to board the flight – this is traveling in style. The flight was only about an hour and we picked up our luggage and met David (Chinese name Ying) who is took us to dinner for hot pot. We had to preorder whether we wanted hot pot or not spicy hot pot. I put in my order for fully spicy…we’ll see what happens….

On the way to the restaurant, David told us about Sichuan province and Chengdu (Sichuan means “three rivers”). Oddly enough, he pronounces Sichuan like “Sit-re-an” which I’m trying to figure out. He says there are a lot of Tibetan people here because the province is close to Tibet and Chengdu is the closest big city. When I say “big”, I mean bigger than Boston. A lot of it looks like the area out around Huntington Ave and Northeastern in Boston. It’s a bustling college city with lots of traffic filled double-laned streets.

One epidemic here is building cranes. You can’t throw a dart without hitting a crane putting up a very tall building. Not just here, but in Beijing and Shanghai as well. It is really sort of crazy to think about adding still more to the skylines here!

Dinner was interesting. For Sichuan hot pot, each diner gets his or her own pot of oil with spices. I had to ask for either regular (not spicy) or spicy (hot and spicy, with lots of Sichuan pepper). I opted for spicy because I do like hot and spicy food. Once I’d put in my order though, I had instant regrets. I remembered Anthony Bourdain’s episode where he did hot pot and the next day had a pretty serious intestinal meltdown. I really wasn’t up for that tomorrow, with it being the first day for pandas, but I took my chances. In the end it wasn’t so bad. I was more concerned about the rare/raw meats (chicken, pork, fish and beef) that we had to boil in the hot oil, so I opted for either big wedges of veggies (pumpkin, celery) or noodles or previously cooked shrimp, fried pork strips or fishballs. I suppose in the end it was like really spicy fondue, but it wasn’t that hot. I do wish it had been hotter, but for the sake of saving the day with the pandas and my intestinal fortitude, I am happy I played it smart.

We got to our hotel here in Chengdu and it is really nice. I think the room is the nicest we have had so far, with a big comfy king bed and very Tibetan furnishings. There’s a nice big soaker tub and shower in the bathroom. Hopefully it’s quiet and I can get some sleep!

As I write this someone just rang the bell to the room. A tiny little female hotel employee was delivering mooncakes to my room, a complimentary snack in recognition of Mid-Autumn Day, the night of the first full moon of fall. I have of course already eaten one, and can’t quite explain it. There is a dense moist cake inside and some softer gooey covering outside. I might have to have another to figure this out...


7c542748-dafd-11e0-b039-000bcdcb471e said...

We got a couple of different kinds of mooncakes last year. One was more sweet, with nuts and sweetened red bean paste, and the other more savory. The designs on them are beautiful and delicate aren't they?
Glad you like the Tibet Hotel--it was my favorite too.

Shannon said...

Enjoying my morning coffee with your updates....keep them coming.

Nancy said...

I am thoroughly enjoying the blog!!!