Xian: From Dust to Dust

Today I awoke to another dusty day to frame my visit to the world-renowned Army of the Terracotta soldiers. I shall spare you the grim details of the local bus ride there (except thank you Lonely Planet for misplacing the bus station on your map).

Two thousand years ago this Emperor cleverly foresaw his eventual death and had thousands of soldiers sculpted from clay in order to fight for him in the afterlife. Life is a battle, death is a battle, after death is another battle. Only a man could think this way. He must have started this project as soon as he was old enough to shout an order. And I don’t even have a will but, hey, I’m a Boomer. I eat right and exercise. Who knows? Maybe they’ll think of something to eternally postpone that day of doom.

Speaking of eating, as I returned too late to see another tomb, I returned to the Muslim Quarter for further food studies. That place has the most numerous, varied, succulent and unusual street food I’ve ever seen. Block after block, there are women rolling out pastry, stirring up stew, stir-frying fresh veggies, rice and tofu, deep-frying patties and selling all manner of produce from chicken and mutton to chilies, mushrooms, jackfruit, candied fruit, spices, beans and plenty of stuff I couldn’t recognize.

For the record, I had mutton soup with diced bread, cold beans with cucumber, a sort of sesame cake, jackfruit and candied kiwi.

I’m nearly in a sugar coma but enjoying fresh date tea with honey in the hotel restaurant. I’ve taken many more pictures and instructional videos (how to wok-fry rice and greens over a coal-fired stove) than I can post here but stay tuned! Fresh date tea with honeySince these crack cooks are so unappreciated here that many live without running water in their homes, I suggest we start a movement to give them visas to foodie cultures like ours. Oh noodle-pullers, come to mama.

Xian: Back in the Groove

Such a relief to leave the dust bowl of Pingyao and upgrade to the normal smog of Xian.

Pingyao was a major banking center and how did it all get started? A trumpet player in the 18th century married an heiress and turned his head to business, founding the incredibly wealthy Wang banking family. See Mom? It’s not always a disaster to marry a musician.

Xian was once the starting point of the Silk Road and you can still get lots of silk in the tiny Old Town along with Gucci bags, jade bracelets, Lacoste shirts and much, much more!

More authentic wares line the streets of the Muslim quarter. OMG the food. My beloved sesame noodles were a revelation. Then there were these fresh fried pastries stuffed with dates or sesame with honey. I had two.

Which brings me to my 10 Surprises:

1. Despite the fact that there are food stalls, snack stands, noodle shops and restaurants every 10 meters I have not seen one single overweight Chinese person.

2. Tea shops are there to sell tea not serve it. This is not a cafe culture.

3. Xian is dazzling at night.

4. There’s an automatic medicine machine at the hotel. I don’t know what that’s about.

5. In the muslim quarter men sit around with a caged bird or two next to them chirping away.

6.Chinese women have a case of the sparklies. Sparkly stuff is glued on to hair ribbons, shoes, coats, bags. You name it.

7. Napkins are rarely placed on the table.

8. There were more fake Kipling valises for sale than Vuitton.

9. The Grand Mosque of Xian had inscriptions almost exclusively in Chinese; very little in Arabic.

10. Chinese original programming on TV is overwhelmingly costume drama.

Pingyao: The Sandstorm

Pingyao is in China’s Shanxi province, one of the regions pummeled by the worst sandstorm of the year. It doesn’t feel like a storm as there is little wind. It feels like you are living inside a desert: not on a desert but within the sand and dust. Visibility is about 50 meters. It’s not a yellow haze as in Beijing; it’s grayish and completely miserable. Because the dust is so fine, breathing it is really sickening. This is much, much worse than Tunisia. I had planned to cycle 6km to see a temple but merely walking to the end of the street makes me nauseous. For some reason, it’s much worse than yesterday. In Beijing, authorities warned that air quality had reached hazardous levels; I’m sure that’s the case here. So I’m hanging out in the hostel, catching up on reading. My train to Xian leaves at 1am so I have a lot of time. I so hope the air is better in Xian.

Pingyao: Harmony Guesthouse

This is a good recommendation from Lonely Planet. These nice hostel people included a pick-up at the train station when I emerged bleary-eyed at 7.30am. Plus they helped me arrange for my ticket to Xian tomorrow. The only downside is that the two teenagers do enjoy their techno.

And then there’s lovely Pingyao. It reminds me of Dubrovnik strangely enough as Pingyao is also a walled city that grew rich from trade. But where Dubrovnik is monochrome, Pingyao is a whirl of color: red lanterns, exquisitely painted exterior panels, carved wood and gilt trim. The buildings are two-story structures, built pagoda style around a central courtyard. The Chinese love being part of a group and the architecture reflects that.

As always, I have 10 Surprises:

1. Whoa, cowboy. You want 120 yuan (EUR15) to visit the museum and interior courtyards? I think not. The Forbidden City was only 40.

2. The vigorous renovations going on everywhere. Pingyao is going for the gold in the tourist race. If it had a port there would be a cruise an hour docking here.

3. So few hair salons in China.

4. There are huge thermoses of hot water everywhere (trains, hotels) .

5. Chinese will pour a cup of hot water and drink it like tea.

6. Despite the one-child policy, I do see siblings playing.

7. There’s such a thing as “maternity police”

8. Chinese dates? They appear to be a sort of dried fruit, but what?

9. Sweet/sour ginger candy.

10. Boil rice in water, drain off the water and drink it for breakfast or to aid digestion. What will they think of next?

Beijing: The Lama Temple

Slept in this am and awoke to Young Son bearing breakfast of tea, fresh fruit, bread, a toaster, cakes, peanut butter, jelly and yogurt. I left almost all of it. Just not hungry.

English language news annonced that a sandstorm had swept in from the north making it advisable to stay indoors. Oh no!! Decided on a visit to the Lama Temple. Delight of delights. With bells tingling, prayer flags flapping in the wind, incense wafting around and Tibetan monks eyeing a stream of worshippers, this was a living, breathing hommage to Tibetan Buddhism.

And on to the 10 Surprises:

1. The spare-no-expense approach to restoring this 18th-century mansion-turned-temple. (China to Tibet: “You see! We like you! We really, really like you! Why do you want to leave?”


3. So many extravagant, over-the-top Buddhas.

4. A 25-METER high Buddha carved out of a single piece of sandalwood.

5. Two exquisitely carved conch shells.

6. Veggie options everywhere!

7. Szechuan dish of paper-thin omlette wrapped around assorted finely-cut vegetables cut into crescents and rolled in crunchy stuff (cahews?) Wow.

8. A 40-minute taxi ride to the train station (see previous entries about immense Beijing)

9. That said taxi ride cost about EUR4.

10. That I actually managed to find the platform, car and berth of my train in reasonably short order despite a train station that makes Grand Central look like a little village whistlestop.

Beijing: So many factories, so little time

I’m so glad we could squeeze in a visit to the Great Wall in between factory visits. Research has revealed not one single tour that forgoes factory visits—jade, cloison, silk and tea. Final result: 90 minutes on wall, 128 minutes in factories.. I don’t need no stinkin’ tours.

And so for my daily 10 Surprises:

1. The territorial emormity of Beijing—the size of Belgium

2.Unpaved side streets outside the center

3. The wall is actually IN Beijing

4. Litchee tea. A marvel.

5.That dinner of fiery szchuan actually irritated my stomach.Who knew?

6.The amazingly high price of jade

7.Cars are limited in Beijing not by odd or even but my excluding certain final digits based upon the day of week.

8.The amazing softness of a blanket stuffed with spun silk. I wish it didn’t cost a month’s pay.

9.People wear surgical masks in the streets.

10. One million yuan is the price of an apartment 100 sq m in the town center

Beijing: From Mao to Ming

Did the Long March from Mao to Ming—around Tian’men square and through the Forbidden City. Ate in the Red Stone restaurant after, wolfing down braised tofu and lotus stuffed with sticky rice (sweet) Lunch was my beloved noodle soup (80 centimes!)

And now for my 10 Surprises:

1. Facebook and Tumblr are blocked in China (duh).

2. Metro is super-easy with signs and instructions in English plus helpers in uniform to sort out the confused.

3. A young woman noticed me puzzling over my map and offered directions.

4. A luscious assortment of fresh fruit in street stalls including strawberries amd blackberries.

5. Other westerners are rarissimo!

6. Uggs are also a craze here.

7.Roast sweet potatoes sold on streetcorners.

8. Guards at Tian’men square pose for pictures with tourists.

9. Baggage xray to board a metro just like the airport!

10. Most furniture in the forbidden city was spirited out by the British and Chiang Kai Chek.

Beijing: Getting to Know You

Love the location of my hotel in a neighborhood full of local shops and restaurants. Not so much sightseeing today; mainly orientation and acculturation.

Here are 10 things that surprised me today:

1. Stylish design of office towers in business district.

2.Uninhibited and unsmothered belching in the local noodle shop.

3. Exhuberant and friendly Chinese (after 15 years working around Chinatown NY this was most surprising)

4. Expensive western stores (Nike) are just as expansive here.

5. Clear, sunny skies and no pollution.

6. Clean, litter-free streets.

7. Feeling like a giantess but able to buy warm leggings anyway.

8. Intense mah jong in the street.

9. Not so much smoking.

10. No Chinese-dubbed American series on TV. They have their own series!

Beijing: Emperor Guards Courtyard Inn

Emperor Guards Courtyard Inn

I was welcomed like the newest imperial concubine in this cheery courtyard hotel. I particularly liked the location near the metro, Tian’men square, the Forbidden City and in a tiny Hutong neighborhood filled with local stores, noodle shops and restaurants.


So glad there’s free wifi at Nice Airport as I’m here way too early. My biggest worry is the connection in Munich as I have only 45 minutes to make the flight to Frankfurt which will bring me to the Middle Kingdom. It’s crazy but with a pricetag of 400eur’ I won’t complain.