Shanghaied, Chapter 11 (Independent Travel, Part 1): The Fanciest Noodles
What does a stressed, exhausted, broke Alliance student do during spring break in Shanghai?
Perhaps rest up for a few days? Explore the local area? Go to the beach, enjoy the newfound sun, and begin studying for rapidly-emerging finals?
C’mon. It’s like episode 11 of this blog. I get lost in weird places. That’s what I do.
I, along with Eryn, Blaise, Gabby, Umama, and Umama’s sister Kaneta travelled together through central China for our independent travel. Since we were already in China, our goal was to visit the less accessible parts of the country beyond the eastern coast. Our plan was to take a train to Xi’an in central China, and then work our way south to Sichuan province in order to see some pandas and national parks. It would be an exhausting week of exciting travels and adventures.
Since cost was a key issue, we planned to stay at small travel hostels instead of hotels and room together to drive costs down. You can sleep for only a few dollars a night at reasonable locations in China if you know where to look. And by taking trains and buses as opposed to flying, the trip was even cheaper than it could have been. Since Xinjiang, I’ve wanted to see China’s rail system, and trains are just a far more efficient way to travel here.
Our train ride to Xi’an was a little over seven hours long. The high-speed rail system across China is very efficient and super fast. We got hard seats, which aren’t as bad as they sound. On a high-speed train, it’s essentially a plane seat; cheap and comfortable enough. Our ride there was rather pleasant. The scenery was pretty, and we made pretty good time across nearly half of China. The trains move really fast!
Xi’an itself is located in southern Shaanxi province. This province is not the same as another Chinese province called Shanxi province, which differs from Shaanxi province only in the tone that it uses. In order to prevent mass confusion among foreigners, they threw an extra a into Shaanxi province, so that it isn’t confused with Shanxi province. Did I mention that these two provinces are right next to each other? The border between Shaanxi and Shanxi must be a fun place.
We checked into our sketchy hostel only to have them inform us that the second night we’d be staying there would cost double, because we happened to be travelling during Chinese labor day, meaning that everyone was taking a small vacation. This would be our first clue that we had picked an…interesting time to travel. We began looking for another hostel to stay at for the following night and finding transportation for our plans. It is at this point that China Unicom, my cellphone service provider, decides to cancel my phone and data service. This totally cuts off my ability to keep in contact with my friends when we’re separated. It wasn’t a big deal, but it was rather annoying.
(“China Unicom: You wanna mess with us? Just try us. We’ll brick your phone halfway across China. No, really, try and pull something. See what happens.”)
Our plan in Xi’an was to visit the city wall, see the famous bell and drum towers, visit the grand mosque and the Muslim quarter, and see the terra-cotta warriors. Additionally, I had a food goal for each city that I was visiting. My main food goal in Xi’an was to sample the famous biangbiang noodles. Biangbiang noodles are wide, belt-like noodles famous throughout southern Shaanxi province. They’re pretty normal noodles, not seriously different from other kinds of noodles, but they’re famous for their bizarre character. The word “biang”, when written out in traditional Chinese characters, has 57 strokes required to make the character. It’s the most complicated Chinese character currently used. There are a ton of stories as to where the character for biangbiang noodles comes from. My favorite theory is the story of a student living in Xi’an hundreds of years ago, who, in order to get out of paying a restaurant bill, offered to make the shop owner a special character for biangbiang noodles. Whatever the story, the noodles have become a huge tourist attraction, with lots of restaurants selling them at high prices. My goal was to see what all the fuss was about.
We set out that morning to book into a new adorable travel hostel, before setting out for the walls. The Xi’an city walls are huge and surrounds the inner portion of the city, which is a nightmare for traffic. A series of massive restoration projects have returned the wall to its former glory during the Ming dynasty, when it was first built. Ornately decorated watchtowers and defensive structures have been rebuilt, and massive vaulting tunnels have been carved through the wall to allow pedestrian and motor transit. The top of the wall has been turned into a huge pedestrian area where tourists can walk around. Around the stairways that allow for access to the top, there are false entries and defensive fortifications to trap invading enemy forces, all restored now. It’s a fun place to visit, and you can get a beautiful view of the city. I broke off from the group, who wanted to rent some expensive bikes to ride along the wall, and went off on my own. I was supposed to meet up with them at a pre-designated area, but plans fell through, and I ended up getting separated from the group for a few hours. This is pretty standard for me. I have this fun habit of getting terribly lost in strange places. It’s something I should probably work on. At least I could call them, though.
A note on the weather. Xi’an was hot. The sun beat down on us as we walked along the wall. It had been fairly cool and cloudy in Shanghai until this point, but the sky was clearer in Xi’an. We all ended up getting fairly badly sunburned. So I was both lost and slowly roasting in the stifling heat. Welcome to summer in China.
Anyway. We managed to meet up and head to the Drum Tower, which is a beautifully decorated tower inside the walls of Xi’an. The Drum Tower’s interior contains beautifully painted walls and ceilings. It housed a bunch of ornate traditional Chinese instruments, including a series of bells, zithers, and, of course, drums. Every half an hour or so, costumed performers would play a few songs for people in the tower. I loved the fact that you had people with traditional robes wearing sneakers. It’s a fun thing that you see a lot in China, whether it’s traditional garb or religious outfits. Monks wearing orange robes looking at their iPhones, traditionally-dressed performers wearing jeans underneath their clothing, etc.
Following that, we headed out visit the Bell Tower, which was basically the same as the Drum Tower, except that it contained one very large bell. I read on one of the signs that the Drum Tower was built in order for the emperor to be able to look at the Bell Tower and its bell. That’s a new goal; become rich enough to build towers to admire my other towers. The bell is pretty cool, though weirdly there were more bells in the drum tower than the bell tower.
As the sun began to set, we headed out to the Muslim quarter to see the Grand Mosque. The Grand Mosque is the largest mosque in China, and one of the most important religious sites for Hui. The Hui are one of the most well-known ethnic groups in China. They are Muslims, and a fusion of ethnic Han Chinese and Arab traders from the earlier days of Islam’s spread into central and eastern Asia. They are often considered some of the most patriotic Chinese citizens with a long history of integration into China, and Hui commanders and leaders are prominent throughout Chinese history. The Muslim quarter is kind of a weird fusion of China and the Middle East, though unlike Xinjiang, it’s more East Asian. Arabic writing mixes with Chinese calligraphy, women wearing headscarves sell cheap Chinese souvenirs, and many store flash gaudy signs advertising the fabled biangbiang noodles. We walked through the tumult and chaos of the Muslim Quarter, which was essentially turning into a massive open-air market, and found the peaceful enclosure of the Grand Mosque.
The Grand Mosque is gorgeous. It’s an interesting fusion of Chinese gardens and traditional Muslim (central Asian) architecture. This mosque was largely completed during the Ming dynasty, and the structures reflect this. Historic Ming and Muslim architecture mingle to form a beautiful fusion. Stone gazebos and paths line the way to the main sanctuary of the mosque. Hui men sit around on old stone seats watching the sunset. Over the loudspeakers, you can hear a strange language. The accent sounds vaguely Chinese, but the words are clearly not. It takes a second for me to realize that this is Arabic, spoken with a local accent, for evening prayers. It’s a peaceful place. The crescent moon hung low in the deepening blue sky over the mosque, and the weather had grown cooler and more pleasant.
Upon our return to the Muslim Quarter’s roads, we found huge throngs of people flooding the streets. A virtual wall of people made it all but impossible to navigate the area. This was the beginning of Chinese Labor Day, and everyone had turned out to celebrate their long weekend. We barely managed to get scattered seats at a restaurant that happened to have biangbiang noodles and I eagerly ordered a single, overpriced bowl.
They’re…pretty okay. Not bad or anything. Tasty and filling. I just…it’s kind of Xi’an’s thing, and there are tons of signs, stories, and touristy junk advertising the noodles. I’d get them again, they were good, but I was sort of expecting a life-changing experience.
New hostel. Wandering all over Xi’an. Crazy lively markets. Noodles. Those were the easy bits.
Day two was the terracotta warriors. A bit less straightforward.
(A brief meta-post: I’m always confused as to how exactly to write about major historical sites in China. Do I go into the history? Briefly? What if readers don’t know about the site? If they don’t, I don’t want to leave them behind, but if they do, I don’t want to bore them. How much to do you about early Chinese dynastic history, reader? What do you want from me?!)
Short and sweet: After centuries of war, the Warring States period of China was ended and the Qin dynasty, China’s first imperial dynasty, was formed. We get the name “China” from this dynasty. The first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, declared himself Huangdi, which is badly translated as “emperor” in English. He’s kind of a lunatic and tries to become immortal, namely by drinking lots of mercury (pro-tip: do not drink mercury. It will kill you). Failing to find the secret to immortality, he starts preparing his mausoleum as a fallback. His mausoleum was planned to include a massive, hidden complex containing rivers of mercury, a huge burial mound for himself, and of course, the terracotta army. Thousands upon thousands of pottery soldiers were created by his personal factories to guard his tomb. This was mainly because he couldn’t bring his army with him into the next life. Anything he could, though, he did; it is said that thousands of concubines, animals, and essentially all the craftsman who worked on the project were executed at his funeral to ensure that his tomb would remain hidden and that they would serve him for eternity. Unsurprisingly, his dynasty did not last long.
On that cheery note, we woke up to see the emperor’s vast terracotta army, which has slowly been unearthed over the decades. I had actually been there before, during high school, so I was to act as the tour guide for our group.
Exactly how we got to the terracotta warriors is still kind of a mystery to me. We showed up at the train station looking for a certain bus before a series of guards started screaming at us and pointing towards a long line of buses. Every time we tried to ask for help some policemen would yell at us in rapid-fire Chinese and point towards the buses. We ended up in a massive line; it was Chinese Labor Day, and everyone wanted to see the warriors, but we were pulled out of the line by some of the guards and directed towards a random bus. Only kind of sure that this was the right bus, and all of our questions rebuffed, we anxiously paid the fare (which was pretty cheap) and ended up heading towards the terracotta warriors. I’ll give China credit; things get done here, albeit chaotically.
The terracotta warriors were a zoo. There were probably tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people there, flooding into the site for labor day. The crowds were daunting but we pushed our way into the long ticket line and waited. We were approached again and again by English-speaking guides who offered us overpriced tours, but we politely turned them down. The endless crowds only swelled and we managed to buy tickets after a long wait, before we headed into the long entry line. The terracotta army visit would be marked with lots of waiting around.
The terracotta warriors themselves are housed in a series of massive hanger-like structures that cover the pits. There are a few museums that house specific objects and a movie theater. We attempted to head into the main museum. So did half of China. You ever try and pack thousands upon thousands of people into a tiny museum full of priceless artifacts surrounded by fragile glass? People were essentially pressed up against the exhibits, all the while being jostled and pushed. We were packed into tiny rooms with thousands of people staring at some prime examples of terracotta horses, along with various bronze weapons and objects. I couldn’t get close, much less examine the exhibits. I’m sure they were just as lovely as I remembered.
Eventually we made our way to the terracotta warriors themselves. Thousands of pottery warriors stand in long, rectangular-shaped pits intersected with walls and narrow corridors. They’re lined up in rows, imposingly standing in some sort of ancient military formation. It’s an amazing sight, and truly one of the world’s greatest wonders; a fearsome ancient army, thousands of years old, dramatically discovered as a millennia-old sentinel for a long-dead empire.
Kinda. Many looked a lot less impressive when they were found, mainly because they shattered into thousands of pieces. Researchers have taken decades to slowly piece together many of those shattered warriors, restoring damage that had taken place over the millennia of burial. Apparently they were originally painted, too; the warriors were originally “clothed” in purples and reds, in contrast to the plain pottery that we see now.
As is, the warriors are still magnificent. When you step to the edge of the pit and look down at the imposing horde, it’s breathtaking. The pit is huge, hundreds of feet long, and you can walk around the entire complex and observe the warriors and the reconstruction efforts. Usually there are a handful of researches reassembling and restoring the pottery shards, but it was Labor Day, and no one was working. Getting a spot to take pictures and look down at the warriors was difficult because of the crowds, but we managed to slowly work our way around. As one of the largest tourist sites in the world, the terracotta warriors have been painstakingly restored are considered one of China’s greatest cultural sites. And they’ve only been known about since the 70’s! It’s a truly amazing place. Magnificent warriors aside, we eventually headed down to the nearest bus stop, all the while passing tacky souvenir stalls. Everyone tries to sell you little terracotta warriors. They’re cute little gifts.
I’ll leave you with this: Xi’an was a fascinating city and a wonderful place to visit. But escaping from Xi’an was a surprising ordeal. While China’s train system has been well-developed, its bus system is lacking. If we wanted to catch our train to Chengdu, we would have to fight for it. Xi’an south station was a three-hour bus ride away from our hostel, not including traffic, so we elected to a take a preliminary train to our second train. It kind of gives you a scale of the size of the development that China has seen; cities have grown so large that transit demands have outstripped supply. Xi’an south train station, where we were travelling from, is a mess; there’s one large, sketchy waiting room, one ticket booth to buy tickets, and the walls are mostly tarps. And yet huge crowds of people gather there, all fighting to be the first to reach their pre-assigned seats on the train. In any event, transit is often very interesting in some of the less developed Chinese transit stations. Finally, after an exhausting day, we were on the road to Chengdu.
And as always, here’s the worst English of the week. I love these signs that try and keep people from stepping on important historical pieces. Here’s a sign I found in Xi’an.