Urumqi China 2
Bishkek Kyrgyzstan 1
Bishkek Kyrgyzstan 2
Almaty Kazakhstan 1
Zharkent Kazakhstan 1
Almaty Kazakhstan 2
Zharkent Kazakhstan 2
Urumqi China 3
Zhang Ye China
Wu Wei China
Lanzhou China 2
XIAN: Government "tout"
that met us on the Airbus at the airport and took us to the government hotel
Hello from the Terra Cotta Warriors home
I'm here in Xi'an because it is close to a region famous for Buddhist caves. It has been about fifteen years since I last visited the city and its principle tourist attraction, the Terra Cotta Warriors archeological excavation. Much has changed! Xi'an is now a first world city; fully developed and glitzy. On the sidewalks one sees people fashionably dressed and walking with the confident self-assurance of any sophisticated American urbanite. The people dress western for the most part. The stores are full of luxury goods and people are buying. Some of the old ladies selling apples still look Chinese, but the others could be Californian. Of course, the flood of foreign tourists and the foreign exchange they bring are responsible for much of the improvement in infrastructure and affluence. Peasant "farmers" in their Mao uniforms with vacant expressions and other people from the surrounding rural areas looking for work now seem out of place in this city of modern high rise buildings and automated buses. Gone are the colorful massive bicycles built like trucks and the putt-putt "hand tractors" pulling carts that previously were the primary cargo movers.
Two generations of single child families have done marvels for the demographics of China. Toddlers in the care of doting grandparents are seen strolling the sidewalks. Parents pamper their only child and the children seem to know how special they are. Gone are the little gangs of noisy disorderly rag-a-muffins I remember from my trip twenty-five years ago.
My first encounter with a group of women standing shoulder to shoulder across the sidewalk chanting a syncopated singsong phrase: "Odd-a-may PU pa" puzzled me and I stopped to watch the performance. Eventually they noticed my attention and giggled between outbursts. So, I sauntered over and joined in the chant, drawing even more attention to whatever they were doing. Finally, a young woman approached me and asked if she could be of any assistance, speaking a "little" English. To my queries about the strange behavior of the quartet I'd been watching, I learned they were offering passers-by their unique services as sidewalk seamstresses. They were from another Province renowned for it fine embroidery work. Later I discovered most of the work brought to them involved nothing more fancy than mending rips in a garment. They and others were there 24 hours a day and could be seen sitting on the nearby pedestal of a massive bronze lion sculpture nimble fingers, needle and thread sewing away.
Outside the West Gate of the ancient walled city of Xi'an I spotted clusters of men waiting for work. Each displayed the tools of his trade and a sign indicating his skills. Some had paint rollers on long handles, others leather bags full of carpenter tools, and still others plumbing tools and supplies, some with their own bicycles for transportation. I snapped pictures and all seemed to enjoy the attention of the foreigner.
Men and women in uniforms are everywhere... but I see very few firearms other than those a part of the dress uniforms worn by guards in front of certain Government buildings. Even the girl who accompanied us on the airbus into town from the airport wore a military uniform. As she ushered me into the government hotel she commented, "I know you..." To my puzzled expression she added: "Mr. Christmas." Guess it is time to trim the billowing white beard.
My government helper, in the photo here, offered all kinds of services and all at special "discounts" for the foreign tourist. She suggested I look at the very reasonably priced rooms in the Melody Hotel where she had her office. The tiny 188 Yuan ($23) room actually looked pretty good other than its cramped dimensions so I took it for the first night and immediately went hotel shopping in the frigid weather. Having mailed home my warm down jacket the day before, I marveled at my stupidity. Xi'an is only 12 degrees further north than Hong Kong, but a whole season different in weather. The weather reports for the previous six weeks I'd been carrying the bulky jacket did suggest a warm coat would be superfluous. Topping off two layers of shirts with the down vest I'd bought in India worked pretty well until the wind picked up and chilled my bones. Spotting a Nylon windbreaker on sale in one of the shops for 79 Yuan ($10) I purchased that for a final weather barrier. That proved sufficient for the time being. Urumqi is another matter, being another ten degrees further north.
During my week stay in Xi'an I upgraded hotels twice; first to the cash only May First Hotel at 236 ($30) Yuan, and finally to the 468 ($47) Yuan deluxe Hotel Royal Xi'an. Hotels other than the five star status establishments are cheap, so why not go for a deluxe house occasionally?
One of my favorite places to walk turned out to be the Muslim quarter away from the modern bright lights and technology, which characterize the rest of the city. Down one residential ally and then another, a changing kaleidoscope included temples tucked between houses, battery powered mopeds zigzagging around obstacles, vocal vendors of toilet paper, fresh vegetables, salvage buyers, cooked food sellers, knife sharpeners all singing their messages. One popular pickled cabbage seller could barely scoop a plastic bag full of her delicacy and collect the one Yuan price (12 cents) before two or three more customers had lined up for service. Beaming at my attention, it didn't take her long to sell out.
Noodle making is an art and involves a rubbery dough that is stretched, folded and re-stretched repeatedly until the individual strands are the size of noodles. The resulting "rope" is then twisted several times and thrown into boiling oil. Food preparation is in progress on every street, including the residential streets, so one is never far from the aroma of something cooking. Street kitchens use small noisy gas powered "blast furnaces" for heating cooking woks. On the crowded commercial streets of the Muslim quarter butchers, bakers and vegetable sellers shout for your attention, the latter singing "We-day-goo-day-oh-det" over and over. Bird walkers can be seen clustered together at various places in the area, often chatting while their birds in adjacent cages carry on their own form of socializing.
One evening on the main East Street near the landmark Bell Tower I witnessed a confrontation between a traffic cop and some taxi drivers. Blocked by another taxi dislodging passengers and then an unyielding stream of pedestrians, the taxi driver could not respond to the traffic cop's repeated demands that he move from a position blocking his view of traffic. Eventually, the cop lost his cool and began screaming at the taxi, finally kicking the side of the car with his boot. Where upon the driver jumped out and physically challenged the cop standing on an elevated pedestal. In a minute another taxi driver had joined the fray. On the verge of a fistfight, a police supervisor entered the scene and directed the cop to retreat. In my judgment the cop abused his authority. The taxi drivers refused to be cowed by such uncalled for behavior on the part of someone in authority.
This is a catch up postcard, the last having been mailed 1 March from Agra India. For the past two weeks I've been on my way to western China. First, I stopped in (6 March) Delhi to investigate visas required by other countries adjacent to the western borders of China and to make travel arrangements. While there I contacted the Chinese Embassy to learn of the procedure for getting my double entry thirty-day visa extended. Not possible they told me, but the PRC tourist bureau in Hong Kong could do it. Then, I learned only Nepal had open borders with China and caught a flight to (9 March) Kathmandu where I had been informed onward flights to Lhasa would be available. However, in Kathmandu I discovered the flights had been canceled for the rest of the month and the only way to Lhasa required a four-day Jeep trip over rough mountain roads with questionable accommodations along the way. There were flights out of Lhasa to Chengdu in China, but I had to get to Lhasa first.
I pondered the alternatives during an interesting two night stay in Kathmandu and finally decided on Hong Kong as my Chinese entry point when I learned of a cheap $356 Thai Airline promotion flight with a stopover in Bangkok. As I had broken another tooth eating a bone fragmented chicken dish in Kathmandu, the stop in (11 March) Bangkok gave me a chance to visit my dentist in the Bumrungrad Hospital, and my eye doctor for a post-op checkup of the new intraocular lens in my left eye. All is well.
The minute I landed in (16 March) Hong Kong I dashed over to the Chinese Government Tourist Resources Bureau to learn of the procedure for extending my visa to six months. There I learned that such a long visa requires special circumstances and an invitation from some government agency. However, I was told that when my existing 30 day visa approached expiration I could contact the Bureau in any large city and have it extended another 30 days... and that I could do that a second time for the second entry as well. That means I'll have two 60-day stays interrupted by a visit to some other country, possibly Pakistan. Hong Kong still is not China! The PRC and Hong Kong remain separate geopolitical entities. With the mandatory Chinese entry date deadline approaching the next day, I decided to take the half hour train up to the border and walk across into Shenzhin for my first night in China on 16 March. The next day I caught a flight to Xi'an.
Internet connections are problematic here... and mostly available in Internet BARS, no Internet Cafes! The last one I tried seemed to be in a brothel! At the moment I am using the very expensive ($5/hr), but ISDN fast service in the upscale hotel I finally moved to; the Hotel Royal Xi'an at $58/night. The previous two for under $30/night were adequate, but no CNN... in fact no English language TV at all... and no Internet access. Still, the connection here keeps dropping or someone censoring my work interrupts it so I have the start over. The previous two attempts in the bars never did allow me to even reach yahoo.com. The government censored CNN during a report of the Taiwan president's speech.
This is 19 March and I've been struggling to get into China before my visa entry date of 17 March expired. Just made it crossing over into Shenzhen from Hong Kong on the 16th. The government baby sitter said she knew me: "Mr. Christmas." I suppose my now bushy white beard and flowing wavy white hair reminds her of Santa Claus.
I am truly amazed how much Xian has changed since I last visited about 15 years ago. The putrid odors tolerated throughout India have been replaced by an ever-changing array of delightful street food smells. Walking the streets one might think they were in Los Angeles or New York City. Everything is modern and new. I keep humming "Everything's up-to-date in Kansas City. They've gone about as far as they can go." The stores are full of luxury goods and people are buying, buying, buying. It won't be long before I'm in the "real" China, so stay tuned. That's it for now. More to come when I have more reasonable Internet access.
Next stop will be Tianshui about seven hours by train west of here where I've read the Buddhist caves are worth a look.