Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Xi'an: F. U.

As you may recall from my last post, Xi'an hadn't been treating us all that well since our arrival. The train was late, it's been raining non-stop, and our hostel is filled with loud Europeans. Well, things only got worse.

Yesterday afternoon, Mimi and I trudged through the rain in attempt to find a post office and send my chicken back to the United States. Mimi had napped, but I hadn't. Instead, I had stayed up and blogged. As a result, I was cranky. Everything was bothering me. Despite being somewhat expensive, the post office was efficient and relatively painless. My chicken is on his way.

By now it was three or four in the afternoon, and we hadn't eaten since morning (another American breakfast at the hostel, shame on me!) We tried to find a Lonely Planet endorsed joint that was supposedly only a few blocks away, but our directions led us into an unpleasant and overcrowded shopping district. As always, people were a bit pushy, as if they had more of a right to get where they were headed than you did. In a way, it was kind of like Times Square, Xi'an style, except this time I was the tourist in a sea of locals. In any event, it was wall to wall foot traffic that was only made worse by the constant rain. Eventually, we gave up on the restaurant and settled for a cheap noodle place we found in an alley.

As we sat down, I noticed that the zipper of my backpack was slightly open. That's funny, I thought, I could have sworn I zipped it up back at the post office. Hungry and underslept, I zipped my bag back up and didn't think anything more of it. I scarfed down the cheap noodles, which were just so-so.The actual noodles were thick and chewy, which I liked, but the sauce was pretty bland the eggplants seemed a bit old.

We finished up and started heading back to our hostel, which was about half a mile away. It was still raining, and we had to venture back through the crowded shopping area. About two blocks from our hostel, a young Chinese man caught my attention and pointed to my backpack. The same zipper was open.

As they say in the movies, there's no such thing as a bad coincidence. I quickly rifled through the pouch and discovered that my U.S. cell phone was gone. For those of you who can picture my phone, yes, it was that one. That five-year old piece of shit that you urged me to replace on a regular basis. I wasn't attached to the phone, but it contained maybe two hundred phone numbers, most of which I had never written down anywhere else. I did another search and found that the only other thing stolen was the cable that allows me to transfer photos from the camera to my computer.

That's right. I got pickpocketed in Xi'an. It was the first time I've ever been pick-pocketed. I guess twenty-six years isn't a bad streak, but I can't help but feel mad at myself. It was a crowded area and I had actually read in Lonely Planet that Xi'an was notorious for petty crimes such as the one I was victim to. Nothing truly important was stolen, but it was the principle of it that kept bothering me. My personal space had been violated. I hadn't even felt anyone touch me. How oblivious of me.

Frustrated, we returned to our hostel and chilled out in our clean but boring room. Everything was annoying me. The weather was shitty. The hostel was full of what I was (unfairly) assuming to be obnoxious, ungrateful Europeans. And I had been pick-pocketed. We had to do something to cheer ourselves up, so we looked for a vegetarian restaurant on the wonderful www.happycow.net, a website that lists veggie restaurants all around the world. Surprisingly, six were listed for Xi'an. Without even realizing it, the time had slipped away and it was almost nine o'clock. Many of the restaurants were no longer answering their phones and I really didn't feel like going on another veggie restaurant wild goose chase.

We ended up walking over to a street that supposedly had some good, cheap restaurants. As usual, we didn't actually find the one we were initially looking for, so we settled for one that looked decently popular. The meal was actually pretty delicious. The highlight was a cold spicy noodle salad that had peanuts, mung bean sprouts, tofu shreds, and lotus root in it. Yummy! In the liquid department, the highlight was my discovery of Hans.

As I mentioned before, most Chinese beers are bland, vaguely malty, and often served warm. Picture day-old, bottom shelf keg beer and you'll be close. Imagine moldy seltzer and you'll be even closer. But Xi'an, a city I was slowly growing to despise, surprised me with a decent local "dry beer" called Hans. It was nothing to write home about (even though that's exactly what I'm doing, I suppose), but it had a crisp edge and a decent after taste. It also packed a whopping 4.5% alcohol content, which is quite high for China. Xi'an, you suck. Hans, you're O.K.

The reason we came to Xi'an in the first place is because it is the home to the legendary Terra Cotta Warriors, a vast collection of ceramic statues that were discovered and excavated in the 1970s, despite being over 2,000 years old. The legendary Chinese emperor Qin Shn Huang had ordered them built to protect him in the after life. Some people consider it the 8th Wonder of the World. They say that after the Great Wall, it's the most essential thing to see in China, and maybe the world.

So the next day, we headed out to see what all the fuss was about. Mimi had already seen the Warriors twice, but was willing to check them out again. To get there, we actually had to take two buses. The first was a local bus to the train station. From there, we were supposed to transfer to a second bus that went all the way to the excavation site, which was about an hour outside of Xi'an. While on the bus, we we're vigilant about my backpack and Mimi's purse. That certainly wasn't going to happen again.

After a short trip on the bus, we got off at the train station and began looking for the 306 bus, which would take us directly to the Terra Cotta Warriors. Like all Chinese train stations, the one in Xi'an was a madhouse. The instant we got off the bus, scammers started offering us over priced tours and taxi rides to our destination. We brushed them aside and began searching for the correct bus. We were a bit lost though, so we wandered way back to where the first bus had dropped us off. Mimi stopped and asked some people for directions. They vaguely pointed in a direction and we headed that way. After a few minutes, Mimi recognized where we were from her time here a few years back, and found the right bus. We climbed on and found two open seats. Can you guess what happened next?

Sure enough, Mimi looked down at her purse and noticed the zipper was open. She rummaged around for a minute. No wallet. How did they do it? Are we really sitting ducks? That's right folks, Mimi and I were pick-pocketed twice in under twenty-four hours. Fortunately, Mimi didn't have too much cash in her wallet and they didn't take anything else from her purse. I thought back to events that just passed? When had it happened? On the first bus? When she stopped for directions? While we were still walking? How could we not have noticed someone unzipping her purse? To their credit, Xi'an pick-pockets are really good at what they do. It's either that or we are two American chumps without a clue. Maybe it's somewhere in between.

Mimi did a much better job than me of being zen about what had happened. No point in dwelling on the past. All we can do from here on out is be extra, super-duper vigilant and keep better track of our bags. I was pissed though. How did they do it?! Were they following us around? Would they strike again? I'm a fuckin' New Yorker, dammit, that shit doesn't happen to me! Slowly though, I came to terms with what had happened and began to put it behind me. I knew for sure I wouldn't be coming back to Xi'an anytime soon though.

The city itself is hardly an attraction. Like Pingyao, its ancient walls are still standing. But unlike Pingyao, nothing of the ancient city remains within the walls. It's modern and dirty all the way. An aspiring Shanghai perhaps, but with less character and more pollution. Moreover, it's not like the city walls have any remaining significance, because the city sprawls well beyond the walls in all directions for miles. God, I hate Xi'an!

To add to all of this, I actually found the Terra Cotta Warriors really boring. Maybe it was because I was expecting something more grand, more jaw-dropping. The guide book had boasted an excavation site the size of an airplane hanger with over 6,000 warriors standing at attention. It turns out that the excavation is ongoing, and that they only "expect" to discover 6,000 statues. In reality, there are maybe a couple of hundred warriors towards the front of the hanger. The rest of the site was either covered in tarp, or had nothing to see. Yes, the statues were really cool, but the presentation was kind of a let down. Maybe I was expecting too much?

After about an hour or two, we decided to leave and worked our way down the 15-minute walk through the tourist trinket gauntlet that separates the site from the parking lot. We caught the bus and headed back to Xi'an. I was feeling a little bit under the weather, but I wanted to check out the city's famed Muslim Quarter. I am a big fan of getting lost in back alleys with various local shops. This had been my favorite thing about Cairo, and exploring back alleys is always high on my list in any foreign city.

The Muslim Quarter turned out to be pretty cool, but a lot of it was over-run with even more touristy trinket shops and stalls. You can only look at chopsticks and oriental fans so many times before you want to vomit. But we were able to find a couple of cool alleys filled with butchers, spice shops, and bakeries. Indeed, the neighborhood had a distinct Muslim vibe, as it remains the primary neighborhood for Xi'ans Hui community, a sect of Chinese Muslims. We tried various a bunch of different snacks, the highlight of which was an incredibly spicy piece of grilled bread. Weird, but tasty.

By the end of the day, we were really worn out and felt somehow beaten down by Xi'an. We decided to bring up our spirits by eating the vegetarian meal that had eluded us the night before. Our destination: a restaurant adjoining a Buddhist temple that was a couple miles outside the city walls. If it was anything like Jade Buddha Temple Restaurant in Shanghai, I knew we were set.

The crowded and jerky bus ride to the temple was only made worse by my pickpocket paranoia. We decided to get off a few stops earlier and walk the rest of the way.

We were really excited for this meal and were near ecstatic when we found the place. At that point I don't think we could have handled another curve ball. When we got to the restaurant, however, we were saddened to find that there was no English menu. Mimi speaks great Chinese, but she can't read very many characters. No pictures of the food either! One of the best parts of any Chinese meal is getting to look at the pictures and read all of the funny English names of the dishes. Mimi did her best to order us some delicious dishes and we settled in. Lucky for us, the food was excellent. The mock meats were quality and the veggies were fresh. Best of all, they had bottles of Hans. All in all, the meal was a great ending to our time in Xi'an.

Now all we had to do was get the hell out of town.

1 comment:

  1. I just wanted to send you and Mimi some love after getting your pockets picked. That's a rough break, but I'm glad nothing too valuable was taken. I caught up on a bunch of your entries today, and it's such a pleasure to read about your adventures from my "peaceful" life teaching trigonometry to the teenagers of Brooklyn.