Asia, 1989. Part VII: The Terracotta Warriors

April 30: Sunday.  Day of rest.  Day of malaria pill-taking.  Our efforts to sleep in are hindered by a key-jangling floor lady who pokes her head in the door at 15-minute intervals starting at 9 a.m. to glance around the room and sigh with annoyance.

We eat breakfast for the second morning in a row in the combination souvenir/breakfast room on our floor, run by an English-speaking engineering student.  The sign on the door says “West Breakfast,” and any non-Chinese walking by between the hours of 9 and 11 a.m. is accosted by the shout: “Toast!”

“Americans love toast,” the the proprietor says, grinning, as we take our seats around the source of his livelihood, a pop-up toaster.  Cost: Y1 per slice, Y2 for a cup of Maxwell House instant coffee.  We help ourselves to the butter while our proprietor makes conversation.

He tells us he wants to study in the U.S., but it’s very difficult to get a visa.  It’s also difficult to be accepted into a program, and then it’s difficult to find one that will pay enough.  In addition to all these difficulties, Chinese citizens can’t get U.S. dollars for RMB yuan, the only currency they are officially allowed to have.  And of course all application fees, TOEFL fees, etc. must be paid in U.S. dollars.  I look up briefly from my buttered toast to meet his eyes and nod in sympathy.  He follows me back to the room after breakfast, where I give him about two application fees’ worth of US dollars, and he gives me the number of RMB yuan equivalent to the official rate.  I wish him luck; he invites me for toast in the morning.

Suitably nourished, Kathy, Glenn and I set out on our bikes.  It’s a considerably nicer day today.  We bike in the sun to a clothes market, where we size up the latest Chinese fashions.  Clothes with English written on them are popular, regardless of what they actually say.  Some just have a jumble of Latin letters.  “What does this mean?” I ask a vendor.  “I give you very cheap,” he replies. “You say how much.”

In the afternoon we head for the train station to pick up our tickets to Urumqi and see about getting Kathy a ticket to Beijing.  Glenn stands in a line for 20 minutes only to be waved away as he reaches the window.  Kathy disappears.  Our illegally parked bikes get “towed,” carried off by a train station attendant to be thrown on a heap and locked up with all the other scofflaws’ bikes.  Every person we ask gives us a different answer for what window to go to to buy tickets.  When we finally locate Kathy again, she steers us to a window, where we wait interminably for a guy to make some sort of incredibly complex transaction, then get our tickets from a smiling clerk in about 90 seconds.  We rescue our bikes by paying a minimal fine and go in search of a park.

We play hackeysack on a patch of grass in Revolution Park for a throng of Chinese spectators.  They start out standing very far away, but as their number grows, the distance shrinks.  A few Chinese join in, but most watch for a while and move on.  We play until the crowd is precariously close and we are sufficiently fatigued to stop.  And so we effectively rid ourselves of train station ordeal anxiety.

We stop to eat at the “Small World” restaurant, located strategically a block from our hotel, a noted backpackers’ haven.  The menu is filled with foreigners’ recommendations and lavish praise, so we order and wait expectantly, only to receive food that is marginal at best.  Back to the spicy pita sandwich place, where the cook recognizes us and fixes us up with food even spicier than yesterday’s.  He offers us a foul-tasting liquor made from rice and we drink as little as possible, but enough to be polite.

Back at the hotel we burst into the room to find that we have a new roommate.  Asleep.  We go to the lobby to argue about whether it’s a male or a female and teach a Chinese guy curses in English.  Dadgumit, criminey, heckarootie, dang it all.  We go through each pronunciation with him, and he sounds just like Beaver Cleaver by the end of the lesson.

May 1: I am awakened by an apparition.  An old woman with a leathery face and clear blue eyes hovers over me, wagging a forefinger and saying, “Watch that money belt, love.  You should really stick it under a pillow.”  It’s our new roommate, a 70-year-old Yugoslavian woman jaunting all over China in her Levis, travel bag slung over her shoulder.  She’s traveling alone by bus and train.  She’s going to dusty, remote Xinjiang province.  She sleeps in hostels.  She is my idol.

Glenn, Kathy and I bike to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, south of the city.  Built in the 7th century, 64 meters high, it’s an impressive sight.  Unfortunately, during our pre-pagoda lunch, I feel unaccountably dizzy and weak.  I’m well physically in every way except that I’m about to faint.  We sit for a long while in the restaurant until I feel well enough to go to the pagoda.  We take it easy, walking around the grounds, resting frequently, then bike back to the hotel, where I rest for the next couple of hours while Glenn and Kathy try yet again to secure her a ticket to Beijing.

I’m feeling rejuvenated by the time they return, and we set out for the Muslim quarter of the city in search of food.  There is a whole alley full of sidewalk eateries, with the cooks preparing the food in enormous cast iron woks over open flames right on the walkway in front of the customers.  We sample the cuisine at three or four of them, eating noodles, vegetables, eggs, mutton, pastries, and ending up contentedly full.  It’s almost as fun to watch the cooks prepare the food as it is to eat it; they seem more artisans than cooks.

We kick hackeysack until it’s dark, then head for the billiards tables.  Once again, although there are 15 games going on simultaneously, no one has any spectators except the foreigners.  It’s not pleasing or annoying to us; just strange.  It’s a very pleasant night.  Every day in Xi’an the weather gets better.

May 2: Our last day in Xi’an.  Time to see the terracotta warriors.  We opt for a 12-seat van for Y8, leaving at 11 am, instead of wandering in search of the appropriate bus.  The ride out is a little over an hour, and not at all unpleasant until it becomes apparent that Kathy’s seatmate is keeping the contents of her stomach in place purely through force of will.  We suffer through each bump and pothole in the road with her, arriving finally without incident.

The terracotta warriors were discovered in l974 by peasants digging a well.  All 6,000 of them have different faces and slightly different poses.  They were made over 2,000 years ago to guard a tomb and are in very good shape.  The area has been excavated and a roof built over it, and it’s now a busy tourist site.  It’s incredible to think that they might still have stood there, undiscovered, if the peasants had started digging 10 yards or so further south.

Business-minded Chinese, as at all major tourist attractions in China, have firmly established their stands hawking souvenirs and “antiques” for a lot of money to the gullible, more cheaply to those willing to bargain.  They seem tireless in their pursuit. Once you make any sort of acknowledgement of their chorus of “Hallo,” you’ll have a hard time escaping without having bought everything they can convince you to take.  It’s fun if you let it be, or annoying if you let it be.  Kathy, Glenn and I revel in it.  Exchange of goods and money requires a lot of hard bargaining; exchange of smiles is infectious.  Although they haggle with you as if their lives depend on that extra two yuan, the overwhelming feeling is that it’s a lot of fun for them too.

I argue with a very polished young man over a “hand decorated pure silk scarf.”  He wants Y80, I insist on Y10.  We debate the quality, the durability, the market forces affecting cost.  He offers me a Mao button for free as a good will gesture.  I offer him Y15 for the scarf.  He accepts.  He folds the scarf and puts it in a bag.  “Pure silk?” I say, fingering what certainly feels like cotton.  He looks down, grinning uncontrollably, then back at me.  “Good bargain, yes?”  I’m satisfied.  I move on to the next stall where someone tries to sell me the same Mao button for Y20.

Nearly two hours of bargaining yield pleasing results. Terracotta warrior replicas, Mao buttons, imitation Red Army hats, an antique buddha, Sun Yat-sen coins.  And a bag of hard-boiled eggs from a sweet old woman with tiny, irregular feet – the result of binding them when she was young.  It’s incredible to think that generations of Chinese women were purposefully deformed in this painful ritual.  Having long since missed our van ride, we take a ride on a packed, decrepit bus back to Xi’an.

Back in town, we bike around looking for food to take on the two-and-a-half day train trip to Urumqi.  We go for a third time to the place with the friendly cook and the spicy food, then pick up our bags at the Victory hotel, turn in our bikes, and make our way to the train station.  Kathy’s train leaves 20 minutes before ours, so we see her off at the “Eastbound trains” waiting room. It’s sad to see her go.  Glenn and I both have really enjoyed her company.  She is tempted to come with us to Urumqi, but her commitments in Guangzhou and dwindling funds hold her back.

In the Soviet Union, one can see as much unhappiness as one cares to seek out.  The hardships of everyday life show in the people’s faces and in their reliance on alcohol to escape.  But one thing that is conspicuously absent is the presence of mentally ill and homeless people on the streets. It is debatable, of course, whether or not they are better off wherever the Soviet authorities put them, but the fact remains that one gets used to not seeing them.  Being once again in a society that doesn’t intervene in such people’s lives – unless they are dangerous – takes some adjusting.

When in a crowd of jostling Chinese trying to get as quickly as possible to the train, I see a woman who clearly has no concept of where or who she is.  The crowd rushes around her, unheeding.  She reels, bleeding from the mouth, looking around at things only she can see.  She is either laughing or wailing, it’s impossible to discern which.  I am startled and look away as I am shoved by the crowd past the ticket-taker.  When I turn around again, she is gone.

The crowd moves quickly down to the platform, people pushing and bumping into each other.  On the platform, the crowd thins somewhat, but people still seem to be bumping into me a lot.  I am a little more distrustful since Kathy got pickpocketed on the bus in Xi’an.  Luckily she noticed, and was able to reach into the thief’s pocket to retrieve her own change bag.  We escape the crowded platform to the crowded train.

I am pretty much fed up with Chinese society and am looking forward to relaxing on my top bunk, away from the spitting, shouting, and pushing, when a girl on the platform looks in the window and starts speaking to me in broken English.  She is from Xi’an; where am I from?  America? Really?  That’s a good place.  She is 20; how old am I?  21?  “So you are my beeg seester.”  The train starts to move.  She stretches her hand up to the window.  I clasp it in mine, we smile at each other, then wave until we can’t see each other any more.  Discouragement, encouragement.  I sit looking out the window, listening to my walkman, and think about nothing in particular for a long time.

5 responses to “Asia, 1989. Part VII: The Terracotta Warriors”

  1. Dave says:

    Love it, as usual.

  2. Tim says:

    Parrish! I finally got some time to read one of these posts. I liked it a great deal and will endeavor to make the time to go back and read the others. Tuesdays are always very busy for me, so I am terribly behind. I find it very interesting that you chose to write in detail about haggling with vendors instead of viewing the terracotta warriors. You were much more interested in preserving your interactions with the people you met, rather than your impressions of the history. Telling.

  3. J-Man says:

    Wow. That last paragraph made me cry. What a sweet image. And I love the old traveling Yugoslavian hippie – what a character! I must see a picture of her, if you have one. I’m wondering if you managed to save any of your souvenirs from this journey – perhaps a Chinese show-and-tell when you have the time?

    And yes, I too am a proud toast-loving American.

  4. I like this section best out of all of them so far. It’s all been pleasant reading, but for some reason, this chunk has a set of beautiful words, vivid images, wonderful and specific experiences.

  5. LP says:

    Sorry for late responses to these comments, but:

    3 – Yes, I have photos of the Yugoslavian hippie and others. Will do a show-and-tell and hopefully post some on TGW when I get the time.

    4 – I realized that same thing reading this years later! I knew that all kinds of info was readily available about the Terracotta warriors, but if I didn’t record the interactions I was having, I’d forget them forever.

    Similarly, when I went to the Taj Mahal later in this same trip, I took photos of every conceivable thing BUT the Taj, rationalizing that photos of the structure itself were available elsewhere. Of course, now it’s funny to have photos of everything nearby, but none of the Taj itself, which is what everyone wants to see.

    1, 4 – Thanks! I’m glad you’re enjoying these posts.