This is going to be a longish post. I started it on the plane to Xi’an on Saturday and I’m finishing it on the way back to Shanghai.
Saturday, Aug. 5: I’m on an Air China flight bound for Xi’an. This plane was built for little people. I thought Air Canada was cramped. The laptop is squished between my chest and the seat in front of me like a ‘V’. It’s only a 2 hour flight so I’ll survive.
I didn’t have any meetings Friday, so after a nice sleep in, I went out to try a bit of shopping. I didn’t get much though. I was on the hunt for a knock-off LV bag for Donna. The Chinese gov’t has taken a lot of steps to stamp out the counterfeit trade – advertisements and billboards say don’t buy fakes, and officials have shut down many of the famous knock-off markets – but it’s just gone further underground. Touts come up to you with catalogs of bags, watches and DVD and invite you to their “store.” I’ve gone with a few and they lead you through winding back alleys and upstairs to rooms packed with goods. Other times shops with regular storefronts will keep the counterfeits in back rooms. One shopkeeper yesterday pulled a table away from the wall, slid a bookshelf to the side, and entered through a secret passage. The problem is the stuff is crap. I found one that I thought Donna would like, but it was scuffed. They went and got me another one, but they couldn’t get the clasp to open. Three guys wrenched on it for 5 minutes until it popped open, then they said with straight faces, “you buy?”
With empty hands I headed over to the Shanghai museum, a very nice exhibition of calligraphy, jade, pottery and paintings. I also went to a city-planning exhibition where they had a scale model of how the city is to look in the next few years.
Last night I hooked up with one of my sources and we went to Face Bar, a Thai restaurant and bar in an old mansion. There were three of us and we ordered a lot of food to share – pad tai, green curry, shrimp, pork, and drank some beers. Then we went to a neighbourhood of bars and had a couple more on the patio. Another expat and his Chinese wife joined us and gave me tips on shopping. The guys who live here have it down to a science. I left around midnight to pack and catch a couple of hours of sleep before waking at 5 am for my flight.
A contact in Beijing had arranged for my ticket, and sent me a confirmation number. They told me to pick up the ticket at the Air China office in the airport. That’s when, for the first time, I was reminded that I was in a Communist country with its uncaring bureaucracy. I showed up at the counter at 6:20 but the guy told me his job was to only sell tickets. The people who handed out tickets that have already been purchased wouldn’t be in until 7, he said. My flight was for 7:50, and a big sign said the check-in would close 45 minutes beforehand. He didn’t have anything else to do, but just sat there yawning. I waited with a huge crowd of Chinese for these people to arrive. There are no such things as lines here, people just clump around their target, so I had to elbow a few people to keep my place at the front of the crowd. Anyway, despite my worries, I made it to the gate just as they were boarding.
As I said, the plane is pretty small. They’re blasting Just for Laughs hidden camera segments over the TV, no headphones. So I decided not to bother trying to sleep.
(I get a kick out of the evaluation card Air China handed out. One of the questions was: "You feel inconvenient in: Flight Unpunctuality? Arrival and Departure? No Complimentary Service?" You know they've got problems when they start with the assumption the flights suck.)
Sunday, Aug. 6: It’s mid-afternoon and I’m just waiting for my China Eastern flight to Shanghai. What a great couple of days. My contact in Beijing who arranged my ticket also had a driver waiting to meet me at the airport. He was a nice guy who spoke quite good English, so as we drove he gave me some info about the region. Did you know this province accounts for 30% of all apple exports in the world? And there are several large mounds of earth you can see in fields, which are royal burial sights. Xi’an is regarded as the cultural heart of China. They’ve also got an awesome highway from the airport to the city, though as I'd later learn it has its flaws.
Before taking me to my hotel, we decided to hit the sights first. We started with the Terracotta soldiers. I've wanted to see them for years, and they didn't disappoint. I spent about four hours wandering through the excellent museum that encompasses the open excavation pits. There are about 6,000 well-preserved bronze soldiers built some 2000 years ago. I’ll post a bunch of photos below.
On the way back to Xi'an we stopped off at the elaborate Concubine's garden. Pretty neat, though it would all mean a lot more if I was Chinese. Apparently at an early age school kids learn the story of how this rather plump lady inspired a great war. It was just a nice place to wander around and imagine what it was like in the days before the swarms of camera-happy Chinese tourists.
On our way back to the city that I learned just what happens when you introduce millions of cars to a country that only 10 years ago got around mostly by bicycle. It started with heavy, slow moving traffic and ended up in full-stop gridlock. After about 30-minutes people got out of their cars to hire local kids to go and buy them water. The problem was exacerbated by a few things. First, with the high price of gas, Chinese believe a car is more fuel efficient if the tank is mostly empty — you know, less weight, better mileage. That’s fine until you’re stuck in traffic and you run out of gas. Many people did. Then older cars started overheating. Everyone had to weave around them. Anyway, we made it, but it took a few hours. The problem turned out to be a crash between a rig and a car. When we drove past six guys, including two cops, were trying to push the rig up a hill.
I stayed at the Hyatt. Ok hotel. They said it was 5-stars. Hardly. I found some great night markets and the food in Xi’an is influenced by the large Muslim population, so there was a lot of mutton on the menu. Very tasty.
Today after a nice sleep I checked out and went for another long walk. It was extremely hot, but I found periodic refuge in the many McDonald’s. I had bought a few souvenirs last night, so I haggled for a bag at the market. I paid $5, which was still waaaaaaay too high. As I sit here, the bag stinks like creosote. Like it's disintegrating right before my eyes.
A huge ancient wall surrounds downtown Xi’an, with a number of impressive gates into the city. I went to the south gate and after mounting the stairs I found a place to rent bicycles for a couple bucks. I got one and rode around the city. I’m not sure of the distance, but it took me a bit over an hour, with a few stops to get out of the sun. It was a one speed bike, a knock off of a Western brand, and I think I displaced a few ribs on the rough patches. There was hardly anyone up there though, which made it even better.