There are at least three reasons I could remember this metropolis in northern China with dim regret:
- Rain. Constant, hard, torrential rain. For days.
- A bad cold and deep cough persisted.
- I lost my phone, probably to a pickpocket.
Despite these problems, I love Xi’an. When I travel I try to imagine, Would I like living here? And Xi’an is a big yes.
The city is 9 million people, but it feels so much smaller. The city’s center (not it’s business district, though) is surrounded by a historic stone wall that’s withstood rival powers for centuries. At Xi’an’s geographic heart is a classic Chinese bell tower – just a few stories tall, a square terraced red wooden building with a swooping slate-gray tiled roof. The galleries inside include a bell, obviously, but also fabulous murals depicting antique photos of the city, brightly colored scenes of people at work and play, and a massive drawing of runners taking off at the start of the 1/2 marathon that's run on the city wall itself. In the daytime, the balconies of the bell tower were a fun place to watch the traffic merge seamlessly on the rotary that encircles it: cars, bicycles, trucks all scooters all deftly merging and weaving across multiple lanes without incident. At night, the bell tower and nearby drum tower glowed with yellow lights that made the red buildings a luminescent orange.
Sprawling northwest from the drum tower is the Muslim Quarter - part Middle Eastern souq, part midway at the county fair. Vendors hawk all manner of fried foods as people stroll, gawk and haggle. The carcasses of animals are butchered right alongside souvenir hawkers and women roasting walnuts. Several "foot massage" stalls had a aquarium tanks on the floors in front of overstuffed recliners, for the patrons to soak their feet in while tiny fish nibbled away the dead skin. Neon signs announce most of the stalls, but the bright lights give a festive vibe being shrouded by leafy trees. These are mostly pedestrian streets, but motorbikes and tiny trucks have no compunction about beeping their way through clogs of families and tourists. Tucked alongside this neighborhood is the Grand Mosque, careworn but still beautiful. Mosques can be incredibly peaceful and calming places to sit and rest and this one is no different. Just outside the old cement walls the city was full of noisy honking horns and yelling people, but inside the courtyard stood beautiful musty old buildings, damp with the day’s rain, trees, mossy gates and pavilions and few cats lounging around the fountains.
Xi’an is nearby the terracotta warriors, discovered in the 1970s and now world famous. I am still somewhat mystified that 2,200 years ago a paranoid/narcissistic emperor commissioned thousands of artistic clay sculptures and then intentionally buried them to protect his reign in the afterlife; and now we are digging them up and trying to put them back together. (The army was buried facing east to survey the conquered land, and now in that general direction stands a McDonald’s.) The three excavation are active archaeology sites and seeing their work in progress was fantastic. Eavesdropping on a guide, I learned that maybe 30 percent of the site has been excavated, with decades more work to do.
The hostel we stayed at here played a huge role is my enjoyment of Xi’an. Staying put for several days in a cozy place was a treat. The morning our sleeper train pulled into Xi’an, we walked a half-hour through the rain to arrive at Han Tang Inn. We got our room immediately, and within an hour I’d had a hot shower was staring blissfully into a cup of coffee and a full breakfast in their comfortable lobby. Previous visitors had plastered the place with funny notes and drawings, and the blocky wood furniture gave it a rustic, solid feel.
One of the staff set out large sheets of rice paper, ink pots and brushes and taught several of us to write a few characters in Chinese calligraphy. All the while the Canadians complained about their country’s politics, and the Britons complained about their country’s politics, and the Americans….
My smartphone slipped from my raincoat pocket our first full day in Xi'an, either because I wasn't smart enough to keep track of it, or a pickpocket was smarter. The police and several sympathetic staff at the hostel told me the crush of extra travelers for the upcoming October 1 holiday make crimes of opportunity more likely. Emily, the manager of Han Tang Inn, came with me to the police station to file a police report, in the hopes that would ease the insurance reimbursement. It led to an interesting night that included a ride in the back of a police car, an hour surreptitiously observing the police in their offices, a good conversation afterward about how much Chinese people trust their police compared Americans trusting theirs. (She also comped us drinks back at the hostel bar to take the edge off the day and celebrate Andy's birthday.)
At one point, I was sitting in nondescript office while an officer examined my passport and visa (a scan of which popped up on the computer of the Federal Security Bureau office I had to visit the next day). Watching him, I felt the nervousness one feels in interacting with authority, even when you've done nothing wrong. My documents are in order, my visa is legitimate, there's nothing to be worried about. I remembered freshly the debates I've heard about U.S. immigration - when people are in the country illegally, they don't have the ability to report crimes against them. If anything was out of order with my visa, no waaay would I have tried to file a police report. But what if something more serious had happened?
The next day was a somewhat comical interaction with FSB bureaucracy trying to turn my official Chinese language police report into an English-language document. (At one point, a police bureaucrat had me sign a form stating that I lost my passport, and she seemed sheepish when Andy pointed out that's the wrong form.) I finally got the right documents from her, and she pointed to the bottom of the form where I should sign and date it: in English it read "Loser's signature." Indeed.
[Xi’an: September 25-28, 2017]