Mt. Huashan China
Guoliang Tunnel China
XI'AN: One of the army of street sweepers prowling the sidewalks of Xi'an.
Hello from Xi'an China,
China these days is a great place for any American travelling alone. The country is intoxicated by the English language and anyone who speaks it well automatically is a celebrity! Western visitors, while now flooding the country for the Beijing Olympics, are still a rare sight on most streets of China. English study is taken very seriously and students of all ages eagerly seek out English speaking foreign visitors for an impromptu conversation. Parents nudge their children to demonstrate what little knowledge of the language they have mastered... much to the irritation and embarrassment of the kids.
"Hello!" is often heard from passersby... probably the only word of English they know! Others more proficient are eager to offer assistance of all kinds where their bilingual ability is an advantage. More than once while struggling to be understood with the few words of Chinese I have picked up, someone will approach me asking, "May I be of help?" On the other hand, I have twice been approached by "touts" announcing: "My friend is a beautiful girl. Do you need a massage?" The exact same English speech is obviously memorized and one can only speculate what they are really selling. Some common English words are recognized by most Chinese. For example, the other day after everyone had gotten into the crowded hotel elevator I announced loudly, "Automatic!" as one of the impatient passengers hit the door-close-button, an obligatory Chinese cultural oddity. As the only purpose is to save two or three seconds before the door closes by itself, my observation caused an immediate good humored murmur from the full load and many grins at the foreigner's naivety.
My antidote for culture shock is a visit to one of the ubiquitous KFC restaurants. In the midst of sipping a Pepsi or nibbling a chicken leg, someone will meekly approach me asking, "May I ask you a question?" or "Can we talk?" The conversations are invariably simple, but almost always I learn something fascinating from the encounters and the people are so delightfully entertaining I find them impossible to resist. This morning at breakfast in the hotel a 12 year old girl and her 14 year old brother came to my table at the obvious urging of their nearby parents. "Who speaks better English?" I asked the little girl.
Pointing to her older brother, "He does." she replied dutifully.
"Is that true?" I asked the boy.
Shaking his head he mumbles, "No, she does." It soon became apparent how right he was as the bright little girl began reciting a string of relevant colloquialisms interspersed with accurately crafted spontaneous observations and questions in well pronounced English.
"Your hair is so beautiful. Do you fix it?" she quizzes.
"No. It is just as my mother gave it to me, except for turning white over the years." I respond, eyes twinkling.
"Slow down; take your time." she says with a serious expression, adding "Be cool."
"Your English is very good," I observe honestly, "especially the slang expressions."
"You have a very young face. How old are you?" she ventures. "It is like a baby's"
"I am 74. Is that old?" I ask, curious to hear her response.
"I think so. My grandfather is 69 and he is old." So went the conversation with this precocious little girl from the modern Middle Kingdom. Her older brother remained petulantly silent for most of our conversation. As I got up to get more orange juice the two returned to their table and their beaming parents. As I prepared to leave the dining room I stopped by their table to compliment the parents on their charming children. Neither apparently spoke a word of English!
Xi'an is still an exciting modern, clean city. An army of orange vested clean-up people constantly wander about sweeping up any litter they find. It is now rare to see country folk in their characteristic Mao uniforms anywhere in the city other than as sellers in the farmer's markets. However, the number of beggars has grown dramatically in the areas frequented by foreign tourists; some are persistent, obnoxious or scammers. The little kids are the most irritating.
In the intervening four years since my last visit there have been many improvements. Noise pollution has been drastically reduced. Gone are all the roaring motorcycles, chugging tractors pulling wagons, taxis sounding their horns to attract the attention of fares a block off, or construction equipment pounding and ripping. The noisiest sources on the streets these days are the people shouting into their cell phones or at one another. Fortunately, such obnoxious behavior is the exception rather than the rule, but every situation has a few of these people who must have learned to converse under very noisy conditions or the gene pool carries a distinctive hearing deficit. It is also possible that grandparents who do much of the child rearing teach the toddlers to "speak up" so the ancient ones can hear them. Walking such a pleasantly quiet city makes me realize how really noisy the rest of the world is. Xi'an is a marvelous example for city acoustics planners the world over.
Xi'an is a city within a city. The walled city forms the central core, but is surrounded by many more miles of business districts. An extensive public bus system with route diagrams anyone can understand makes getting places simple. At one Yuan (about 15 cents) per trip, transportation is a bargain. A prepaid bus card makes it even cheaper and automates the fare payment process. Buses are an enlightening place to watch people and they are one place you can find smoke free air. Last week I had to chuckle at a posting in my bus: it showed a ball of yarn with knitting needles crossed out by a diagonal red bar meaning prohibited! I tried to imagine the poor guy who must have gotten stabbed by a granny knitting her grandson a sweater at some point in the past.
Buses are also a convenient and safe place to watch the chaos of traffic control throughout the city. The only rule anyone follows is don't hit anything. Vehicles crowd one another, squeezing into the tiniest empty cracks in the flow of traffic. As much of the traffic sits at a standstill, pedestrians wander among the stalled conveyances to cross streets. When traffic does start to move it is everyone for himself. Traffic control officers nonchalantly wave their red flags reflecting the obvious, but few pay any attention to them. Stop lights only suggest what the law abiding should do, but so many ignore the law everyone faces a gauntlet at the intersection. The light changes and the traffic with the green light is stopped by a flood of pedestrians crowding the crosswalk against the "don't walk" light. Bicycles, both pedal powered and electric, upon finding the street lanes blocked, simply move up onto the sidewalks to race silently among all the pedestrians trying to dodge one another and now the illegal wheeled menaces. Traffic law enforcement is a travesty. It is shocking in such a large, crowded modern city.
So many people want to take my picture I have considered charging them for the privilege. I am very popular as a photo backdrop. Westerners still are such an oddity for the farm folk, many want a photo record to astound incredulous friends back home. Sometimes the excitement of seeing a white bearded creature is so great all sense of timing and good manners are forgotten. While leaning precariously over the third floor railing of the Bell Tower yesterday in order to awkwardly frame a photograph of the partially hidden bell below, some guy jerked my shoulder shouting, "Picture... me?" Startled, I almost lost my balance and regaining my composure let him know through my voice and gestures how inappropriate I considered his timing. He slinked away chastised and embarrassed. Only later did I realize the incident might have been handled with more compassion on my part.
Speaking of photographic subjects, I just about choked when I saw the latest male fashions being displayed on mannequins with the faces of the famous Terracotta Warriors. Walking on by the city's music hall I discovered the entrance decorated with more Terracotta Warriors playing harps, drums, violas, horns and cymbals. The gimmick certainly does get the attention of this foreign visitor.
Western restaurant franchises have expanded to saturation in Xi'an. Within the walls of the central city one is rarely out of sight of a KFC, Mac Donald's, or PizzaHut. Many home grown copycats have sprung up as well. While exploring side streets the other day a green noodle vendor pushing his bicycle cart while singing out his offer: "Oh-Na-Moon-Wa... Oh-Na-Moon-Wa," seemed like an anachronism. As his voice faded the ever present sounds of traditional Chinese music in the pentatonic-diatonic scale somewhere down the street replaced it. It no longer sounds alien to my ear... rather soothing, actually. I am in the Bell Tower Hotel which sits directly across from the city's ancient bell tower. In olden times the bell sounded at daybreak. Drums in the nearby Drum Tower were pounded at dusk. Today the bells ring anytime a tourist is willing to pay the tower keeper 10 Yuan, about $1.50... several times throughout the day the deep throbbing gong rumbles through the air.
The dramatic reduction in noise pollution has been replaced by a drastic increase in air pollution. It is hazy everyday. On really bad days black crud accumulates in my nostrils like it did during my childhood when orange growers would fire up the smudge pots to keep crops from freezing in Southern California. Reducing the sources of pollution is a high priority and a number of energy conservation measures have been put in place. For example, compact fluorescent lighting is used exclusively, some of the escalators are turned off during lower usage times, all air conditioned shopping centers have heavy plastic transparent curtain strips hanging over the entrance doors to keep the cold in, government subsidized bus transportation encourages increased ridership and electric bicycles have replace gasoline powered motorcycles.
However, I am shocked by the central government's monopolistic role in promoting cigarette smoking. Smokers light up whenever and where ever they wish, even in the occasional areas posted with "no smoking" signs. Only in the American fast food restaurants like KFC and MacDonald's is the prohibition stringently enforced. I see Bill Gates is using some of his millions to educate the Chinese about the serious health consequences of smoking and I am doing my bit by chiding smokers I encounter in "No Smoking" posted enclosed areas . Instead of warning smokers of the health hazards, the central government is encouraging the sick habit with state run tobacco stores. I have seen no evidence of any anti-smoking campaign, public or private.
The scheduled 02:00 AM flight out of Bangkok left three hours late due to weather problems making the arrival time in Xi'an 07:00, perfect for someone like me who likes to search for a good first night lodging deal. However, this time the government's stringent visa application rules required a confirmed hotel reservation and I therefore knew exactly where I'd be for my first night. The 4 star Royal Gardens Xi'an Hotel at $74 is not bad, but I soon found the better situated 5 star Bell Tower Hotel and finessed a $66 rate for the bulk of my time in the city. The free included Internet access turned out to be a wired connection that is totally useless with my Pocket PC, so I went searching for a good WongBa as Internet cafes are called in China. The one I am in right now is cavernous.
With 200 Internet stations, it is dark, noisy, hazy from all of the indiscriminate smoking and full of mosquitoes. My eyes burn and my lungs ache from the smoke and I itch from imagined insect bites. The mosquitoes in this hall slowly fly across my bright screen giving me plenty of time to smash their little heads with a quick clapping attack. As I have yet to be bitten in the WangBa, I am wondering if Chinese scientists have discovered a mosquito appetite suppressant. If she is not hungry, she might not bite. Just to be safe, I restarted my daily dose of Doxycycline after being bitten twice in the hotel room.
While China now has more Netizens than the United States, almost no one uses the World Wide Web for normal surfing activities. Most users are young men playing games or searching photo galleries for girls... and the occasional girl searching for her prince charming. The guy next to me is using an online English language teaching program.
As soon as I had access to the Internet I checked to see if my websites were still being blocked as they were four years ago. Nope. All is well and government censorship appears to be limited to the most politically sensitive subjects like discussions of that old guy in the orange robes or the most troublesome aspects of that chunk of China surrounded by water. If I seem circumspect here, it is because the last time I waxed explicit my connection to the Internet suddenly became problematic. You get the idea. There have been improvements, but unfettered total access to all resources on the web is still a dream.
For a while I concluded artificial sweeteners had been banned in China; not so says Maggy, my CITS travel consultant. "Diet food is just not popular in China." Gasoline is cheaper than in the U.S. at about $3.50 per gallon. Match making and wedding services are big business in downtown Xi'an. Stores full of councilors with computer terminals advise hoards of marriage hopefuls... sometimes with the assistance of astrological readings.
The day I arrived in Xi'an ShanShan and her boyfriend, MoMo welcomed me warmly and presented me with a memento of the Biejing Olympics. We ended up at her favorite buffet restaurant specializing in local dishes. They also assisted me in getting cell phone service for the several months I'll be in the country. ShanShan is one of the university students I met in 2004 while visiting the Science and Technology Museum on that earlier trip.
The country is still reeling from that killer earthquake a couple months ago. ShanShan, who lives in Xian says she felt it from many hundreds of miles away. Victim' families and the government continue to exchange anguished accusations and bitter recriminations over the poor quality of schoolhouse construction.
I will leave for Mount Huashan in a day or two for what promises to be both a challenging and dangerous climb. More about that when I return from that adventure... if I return.
After returning from Huashan I headed on over to the Guoliang Tunnel... and came back to Xi'an again before heading up to Chengdu for connections to Leshan where the giant sitting Buddha is located.
Fred L Bellomy
XIAN July 2008 July, 2008
Fred L Bellomy