Distance Travelled: 9487 miles
Date: 27th – 30th July
I stood outside Xi’an’s imposing Bell Tower, a ticket to ascend sitting unused in my pocket, watching the swallows catching moths. I was enjoying the peace and quiet of the traffic speeding around the roundabout immediately behind me, encircling the old stone and wood edifice.
Despite how it sounds, that’s not a snarky dig at the high levels of traffic, as within the old stone walls of the city (of which more later) it’s illegal to use your horn, leading to an utterly different driving style.
When visiting in the late 80s, Douglas Adams wrote:
“The other sound [that you hear everywhere] is the Chinese bicycle bell. There is only one type of bell, and it’s made by the Seagull company, which also makes Chinese cameras. The cameras, I think, are not the world’s best, but the bicycle bells may well be, as they are built for heavy use. They are big, solid, spinning chrome drums and have a great resounding chime to them which you hear ringing out through the streets continuously.
In the western world, to ring a bell or sound a horn is usually an aggressive thing to do. It carries a warning or an instruction: ‘Get out of the way’, ‘Get a move on’, or ‘What the hell kind of idiot are you anyway?’ If you hear a lot of horns blowing in a New York street you know that people are in a dangerous mood.
In China, you gradually realise, the sound means something else entirely. It doesn’t mean, ‘Get out of my way, asshole’, it just means a cheerful ‘Here I am’. Or rather it means, ‘Here I am here I am here I am here I am here I am…’, because it is continuous. It occurred to me as we threaded our way through the crowded, noisy streets looking for condoms, that perhaps Chinese cyclists also navigated by a form of echolocation.
‘What do you think?’ I asked Mark.
‘I think you’ve been having some very strange ideas since we came to China.’
‘Yes, but if you’re weaving along in a pack of cyclists, and everyone’s ringing their bells, you probably get a very clear spatial perception of where everybody is. You notice that none of them have lights on their bicycles?’
‘I read somewhere that the writer James Fenton tried riding a bike with a light on it in China one night and the police stopped him and told him to take it off. They said, “How would it be if everyone went around with lights on their bicycles?” So I think they must navigate by sound.’”
– Last Chance to See (1990)
Since then, of course, China’s economy has boomed and everyone has upgraded to driving cars. But habits are hard to change and the same principle holds. I noticed the same technique being used when I was in Sicily, but when you multiply it by the population of China it leads to a morass of blaring vehicles, the sound becoming a background wall of noise that you only truly notice when it’s gone.
I took the underpass to the Bell Tower’s twin- the Drum Tower, and to the entrance to the Muslim quarter, my favourite section of the city, and where I would spend a lot of my free time. Xi’an was once the Chinese nexus for the Silk Road, and was a large hub for migration from the East, leading to a large Islamic population in the city. This has evolved into an area of all day markets, snack stalls and restaurants. Or, to reword that, cheap food and souvenirs.
Like everywhere I went in China, the street food included lots of things that most people in the West wouldn’t really consider as ‘food’ – insects, hooves and strange pastes of uncertain origin were among those found here – but I suppose that’s what you get after millions of people are starving for generations.
I bought myself a bowl of Yang Rou Pao Muo, a filling mutton and bread soup, and admired my other purchase of the day, an £8 Rolex. This was one that wound itself from the kinetic movement of your arm moving throughout the day. Predictably this would get worse and worse, stopping overnight at first, then degrading to the point that if you didn’t move for an hour or so the watch would stop. I would stubbornly wear it long past the point that looking at it was more an exercise in optimism and estimation than an accurate gauge of the time, but I managed to pay less than a pound for every week that I used it, so I figure that’s a decent deal. It would last me until Japan, where nothing is cheap, and a replacement was out of the question.
The Forest of Steles
The map I’d picked up had a very loose relationship with scale, orientation, or any apparent reality. This may partly be explained by its being in Chinese, although I think it was just a badly designed map. It was for this reason that I was never to find the Great Mosque, the largest of its kind in China. Fortunately though, the streets, as elsewhere in China, were laid out in a strict grid pattern, and I was able to find my way around fairly easily. The real issue I had with the map was its lack of scale; on arriving in Xi’an, I had thought it a fairly small city. It is, but only by Chinese standards, having over 8 million residents.
This meant that the short walk to the Forest of Steles turned out to take an hour or so. As I walked, I passed the same shops over and over – tea shop, restaurant, run down electronics store, restaurant, miscellaneous junk shop, tea shop, brothel – with the odd Starbucks and KFC thrown in for good measure. My destination was just inside the city walls but, missing it, I found myself at their base. I’ve been to plenty of old walled cities in Europe – Rome and York stand out in my memory, and even London has impressive examples still – but the walls of Xi’an are in a league of their own. They are the largest in the world, and still in impressively good condition.
It is one of my biggest regrets from Xi’an that I didn’t find time to climb or cycle around it.
Retracing my steps, I found my way to the entrance to the Forest of Steles. I’ve thrown that name around a bit now, so I guess I should tell you what exactly I’m on about. A stele is a large stone pillar, on which is carved important texts. Within the ‘forest’ are some three thousand steles dating back as far as the fifth century, although not knowing any Chinese, they were pretty interchangeable. It includes the complete works of Confucius, a carving of a bamboo forest which on closer inspection turns out to be a poem made up of the branches and leaves, and the Nestorian Stele. The latter was erected in 781, and relates the first 150 years of Christianity in China. According to Wikipedia it: “was moved to the Stele Forest in 1907, after the local authorities learned that the Danish adventurer Frits Holm was in town, trying to “obtain” the ancient monument and take it out of the country.”
I was listening to my iPod while wandering the grounds, and nipped into a half concealed doorway into one of the surrounding buildings- more than a little to get out of the heat. In mid-summer, Xi’an was hitting the mid-thirties. I was confronted by a cross between a propaganda wing and a shrine to great communists, just as ‘Ave Maria’ sung by Chris Cornell came through my headphones. An odd combination that lent it an air of religious reverie.
There were photos and minor personal effects of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao, with the inevitable leaning towards those of The Chairman. I found it slightly strange, and a little unnerving, how they are all still so revered in China. In England, when these men are thought of – in particular I’m talking of Stalin and Mao here – they are considered as despotic rulers who caused some of the highest death tolls ever recorded, but in the countries that they subjugated there is still real reverence for them. I was reminded of the feelings Mongolians have towards Genghis Khan, and the busts of Hitler and Stalin I found there. I wondered whether it was largely a respect for strength and firm leadership. I suppose you could compare them to the often cruel, dictatorial or violent Kings and Emperors of Europe, many of whom are still similarly revered.
In discussions with locals later (often conducted through a double barrier to comprehension of alcohol and different languages), I was to conclude that the commonly held perception of Mao, at lest among the younger, more educated populace runs something along the lines of:
“We know that Mao made many mistakes, but on the whole he did much more good. We know that laws can be hard here, and we may not have as much freedom as you do in the West. But in China, people are mostly happy with the government because for Chinese people, this is the best life has ever been. Our grandparents remember not having enough food to eat, but now there is so much wealth and prosperity. So people respect the government even when it is bad, because they have made life so good for us now.”
A viewpoint that I found it hard to really argue with. Sure, Mao was a despotic tyrant, but he did drag the country kicking and screaming into modernity and relative prosperity. Obviously there were millions upon millions of deaths, but when compared to the total population 1.35 billion, and counting, it’s a small percentage, and I suspect that Europe didn’t develop particularly healthily either.
The other aspect is that everything that happens in China happens on a massive scale, so death tolls are much higher than in other parts of the world. Steven Pinker (2011) claims that 1/6th of the then world’s population was killed during the An Lushan rebellion over seven years, during the Tang dynasty in the mid-8th Century. Even natural disasters lead to vast fatalities- the famine of 1876-78, for example, led to the deaths of 10-13 million people.
Leaving the wing, I was stopped by an attendant, who explained that she had helped to put the exhibition together, and would I please sign the visitors book? She insisted that I wrote what I thought of it, so coward that I was, and despairing of tackling a complex political issue in a sentence or two, I probably wrote something along the lines of ‘a very interesting collection, and intriguing to see examples of Mao as a young man building support among the people’. I then helped her practice her English, and sat and chatted outside for a while.
In addition there was an exhibition of ancient Buddhist statuary. Kinda cool, but frankly I doubt if the place was worth seeking out.
The Bell Tower
Back at the Bell tower, I waited for some time until the beginning of the next scheduled performance. It turned out to be a musical show using traditional instruments, plenty of bells among them, appropriately enough. The musicians were all fairly young kids, and appeared to be giving the same performance throughout the day.
The views from the Bell Tower were not nearly as interesting as views of the Bell Tower, although you got a good look across to the Drum Tower.
Descending, I ran into Nick, an English teacher working in the far-northern city of Harbin. We went out for noodles and beer, and made plans to go to see the Terracotta Warriors the following day. You’re going to have to wait to hear about them though- This post was getting too long, so I’ll write about how that went in my next update. Don’t worry, it’s already written, so it should be up before too long.
The Fountain Show
Returning from the Warriors, Nick went to rest after his visit to Huashan the previous day, while I went off to the train station to buy a ticket to my next destination, Chengdu. The only only available bed was on the 30th, earlier than I had intended to leave the city, but after my experience with the standing room from Shanghai I decided I needed a bed. Arriving at the station entrance, I was accosted by a pickpocket.
Fortunately for me, my bag is constructed with magnets holding the top flap down. I felt the tug as these were pulled apart, and turned to see a young Chinese man hurriedly walking away from me. Had this happened in London, or really anywhere I had a hope of talking to police and bystanders, I probably would have given chase, but not in China. Besides, he had an umbrella which looked like it could be used as a fairly formidable weapon.
I reconvened with Nick at 8pm, and we took a bus out to the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda. This has survived from 652AD, and stands at a height of 64m. This is a relic of Xi’an’s past glory (and it most definitely is just that; past), from when it was still known as Chang’an. Up until the 8th Century AD it was the largest and most powerful city in the world, with over two million people. At a time when there was little but grimness growling away over the rest of the world, Chang’an stood as a cultural and political powerhouse. It was designed on traditional principles, with solid walls, strict road layouts and markets in specifically designated areas. It was also surprisingly cosmopolitan, being utterly unlike the China of later eras, with six Zoroastrian temples, the Nestorian church, and the Great Mosque.
The pagoda wasn’t what we were going to see though. In front of it is found the largest fountain in Asia. It is a huge stretch of shallow water (across which a couple of people ran immediately prior to it all kicking off – I didn’t see what happened to them, but I doubt the police would’ve cared too much, there not being much inherently anti-The Party in it), with hundreds of jets of water swirling and dancing from it. Performances are held at noon and 9pm (depending on the time of sunset), and hundreds of people gather to cheer the choreographed mix of music, water, colours and sound. Xi’an is a popular domestic tourist destination, which meant that the vast majority (as in everywhere in China, actually) were Chinese people, leading to the now slightly inevitable pointing, staring and requests for photos that I had come to expect.
There was a slight gusting wind blowing down the length of the fountain, straight towards where we had decided to stand. Every now and then a particularly high geyser would erupt at the same time as a strong blast of wind, and a wall of water would rain down on us. This gave us the most fun aspect of the fountain- watching a hoard of Chinese tourists run wailing from the edge of the fountain, and slowly creep back just in time to be soaked again.
Of course, we got soaked too. But, being hardened western travellers, we remained stoic and dignified. Actually, to tell you the truth, it was nice to cool off for once. China is hot in summer. Have I mentioned that already? It really was.
Baiju and Ganbei
To warm up a little (that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it), we didn’t take the first bus back, and instead went to the nearest supermarket and bought ourselves some Baiju (pronounced bye-jo).
Baiju is a very special spirit – similar in general to Korean Soju, Japanese Shochu and Sake, but so much worse. It has been described as:
“It’s not bad, it’s not unpleasant, it’s gut wrenchingly disgusting and worse once you’ve downed your first glass you won’t get rid of the taste for days. Its flavor seems to coat your tongue, your lungs, your esophagus and anything else it can get its metaphorical hands on.”
“Baijiu, by the way, tastes like stale zombie farts.”
“tasting like paint thinner, rubbing alcohol or diesel fuel”
“pure alcoholic terror”
Wikipedia describes the taste as ranging from “fragrance of honey … subtle in flavour and sweet in taste” to “solvent and barnyard aromas, with the former, in combination with the ethanol in the liquor, imparting a sharp ammonia-like note. It has been described as stinky tofu crossed with grappa”. (I tried stinky tofu in Taiwan, much later. I’ll tell you about it in due course, but lets just say that it really deserves the epithet).
Baiju is made from fermented rice wine (sidenote- ‘wine’ in the cultural sinosphere usually means this fermented, lethal version), and this means that it’s unlike anything found in the west. Usually hovering around 50% abv (although this varies wildly – 30-80%. Ish), it was introduced to me with the following words:
“Alright, so this is 50% alcohol. That’s the good news.
[pause for a beat]
Seriously. That’s because alcohol you know, and understand. More or less. So half of this drink won’t be too unusual, although it will be strong. The other half? Pure WTF. It’s odd, there’s no getting around it.”
“What does it taste like?”
“Like nothing else. You ever try explaining what red bull tastes like to someone that’s never tried it? Just drink it- you’ll see.”
And he was right. It wasn’t too bad- I didn’t have the same sort of revulsion to it that the quotes above suggest. I mean, it wasn’t particularly pleasant, but it wasn’t awful. But it’s distressingly difficult to describe.
I’ve certainly drunk worse. In particular, the mindblowingly strong Eastern European spirits come to mind, especially those that are a single step from moonshine. And Sicklet, if you’re reading this, I’m thinking specifically of that bottle you brought back from Serbia – slivovitz? rakia? – it was awful.
We brought the bottle back to our dorm room, and shared it out with the others who were around. They uniformly thought it was utterly undrinkable, leaving Nick and I to finish off the bottle.
But this brings me on to the other dangerous aspect of Chinese drinking culture – the Ganbei. This literally means ‘cheers’, although in practice it means ‘down whatever the hell you happen to have in front of you right now’. How it works is this. The drinking party sit around, eating a meal or snacks (you always have to be eating to counteract the effects to come), chatting about whatever, until there’s a lull in conversation, or someone wants to drink, whereupon they shout ‘ganbei’. At this signal, everyone grabs their glass and empties it. Repeat ad nauseum.
The other version, particularly lethal for the laowai*, is when drinking buddies ganbei individually with whomever they want. As the white, western, alien laowai, this means that in practice you will be drinking at at least a 10:1 rate. Dangerous, even for the most hardened westerners. The flip-side of this is in clubs and bars, where you will be welcomed over to get free drinks to ganbei with (usually) drunk Chinese men. It constitutes an insult to refuse them.
Apparently the most sophisticated drink Jack Daniels and green tea, although I never got around to trying that particular monstrosity.
Intending to participate in this tradition, Nick and I headed out Xi’an’s ‘bar street’, to find it utterly devoid of life. The next morning I got up late, and went to go climb a mountain.
*laowai just means ‘foreigner’, although sometimes this carries with it all the stigma from a notoriously racist/xenophobic culture, and associations of ignorance, strangeness and wrong-headedness. I never felt it being used in a particularly derogatory manner though.