Monday, February 06, 2006

West Side!

We left Thursday morning, fleeing the ice and cold of Harbin in high hopes of 40-degree temperatures. At that point in time, breaking above freezing seemed like nothing more than a forgotten dream in our minds.

For the first time, I wasn't traveling alone. One of my co-workers, a fellow Americano, tagged along. Before signing on it had been made clear this was my trip, and conceeded by the compradre that they weren't going to be able to travel anywhere without any help regardless, so full reign rested in my responsible hands.


In all seriousness, I'm a weathered China-traveler and there was nothing to fear. After two flights and a long lay-over we hit ground in Xi'An, China's western-most "civilized" city and ancient capital. Immediately leaving the terminal we understood that we were no longer in Harbin, not only because the temperature was noticably warmer, but because the fog was so thick we couldn't see much more than 10 feet in front of us. Made for an exciting bus ride into town.

After getting a hotel room and a good night's rest, priority one was finding a way home. Chinese Spring Festival brings the largest movement of population in the world every year, and as most Chinese won't afford a plane ticket, trains are packed and at times hard to come by. We had to fight our way onto one to get back to Harbin a week later (you can't buy train tickets any more than 7 days in advance nor canyou buy them anywhere but in the city of departure), but thanks to my handy-dandy proficiency this proved little annoyance.

Free to begin exploring the city, we began to explore the city. First off came the Muslim Quarter. As a terminus of the Silk Road, Xi'An supports a healthy Hui (Chinese Muslim) population. The streets surrounding the Great Mosque offered an endless supply of market goods, both quality and crap. But despite the abundance of potential commerce, the streets lay bare. Most people were already home, preparing for the coming celebration. Luckily there was no problem in snagging a wonderful bowl of lamb/noodle/bread soup. We also checked out a newly opened place of interest, the ancestral home of a child prodigy. This 13 year old kid, some 1000+ years ago, scored #2 on the national examination and since became the idol of Chinese students the world over. Prior to being open to prying foreigners the structure stood only for the refuge of traditional artists. As we wandered in, the entire place was void of anyone, so we got to do a lot of poking around.

Hidden within a warren of alleys we found the Great Mosque. Having visited countless Buddhist and Daoist temples, I couldn't find much special about this site. Maybe it was the weather, maybe it was the lack of anything seperating the Mosque from other temples, maybe it was because we were barred from the prayer room; I dunno.

Leaving the Muslim Quarter behind, and acknowledging that the omnipresent fog really killed outdoor experiences for the day, the next goal became the ShanXi History Museum. I love museums, used to lose myself in the Smithsonians about once every month, and i havent been to a museum proper since coming to China. This one blew me away. ShanXi (the province where you'll find Xi'An) IS China. This is the place where QinShiHuang united 7 kingdoms to form the nation that we first call "China." As such, the museum was loaded with artifacts. Over numerous multi-floored buildings, one may walk around and watch as civilization developed bit by bit, as everything is laid out in chronological fashion. Very interesting, especially when you're a history nerd. Even more if you're a history nerd who can read Chinese. Wonderful time.

After that it was dark and we were tired, so the first full day found its end. We hoofed back across the city, snagged dinner, and that was that.


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