Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Silk Road Chronicles, Day 2 (part 1)

I beat the wake up call, poking the head out at 5:40. A quick visit to the restroom and I’m back in the sack for that last comforting snooze. This *is* a holiday after all. The call comes at 6; it’s automated alternating Mandarin and English. The English part says, “It’s NOW time to WAKE UP.” Imbued with the Communist Work Ethic, I roust TPB out of bed. By 6:15. Sit down and write the previous day’s log till she is done abluting. 6:30.

At 6:45 we head downstairs for the breakfast buffet. (I can’t imagine anything but the most extraordinary circumstances seeing me get breakfast at that hour. This *must* be a special occasion. I dupe my body by telling it that I’m jetlagged.) The buffet spread is lavish, stretching all the way up and down a long oval table – probably made up of several tables – set in the middle of a large hall. I sample a bit of most things, taking an extrabig serving of Chinese beef curry with carrots, and some fried rice, a veg dumpling, a mutton dumpling (the first of many, I think to myself), and other assorted stuff (much of which I wouldn’t be able to identify if pressed). TPB eats cereal, of all things. Jet lag. Breakfast done by 7:20, we head out to the Islamic Quarter.

It’s not hard to find, round the corner from our hotel, then just a little down the street and through a subterranean crossing, past the Drum Tower (in China a Bell Tower was always accompanied by a Drum Tower – they rang the Bell in the morning and beat the Drum at night) in front of which a bunch of middle aged ladies were doing some sort of strange uncoordinated musicless dance that looked like a parody of qi-gong, round a couple of other nifty corners, and there we were – a big sign across the top of the street proclaimed that we were gloriously unlost. The street was long and flanked by avenues and closed shopfronts. It wasn’t completely deserted, but the few people who were there were walking right down the middle of the street. The occasional shopkeeper was opening up for the day; a couple of shop windows were already open including one with an intriguing display of dried fruit that included kiwi fruit, and a few local tea houses were serving breakfast. TPB decided she wanted to find the local mosque. That too proved to be surprisingly easy – the only street signs that were there featured arrows and the legend “Grand Mosque”. Following the signs we took a left about a couple of hundred yards down the street, and another left into a tiny narrow lane called Artisan Street. The lane seemed completely deserted except for a single old man wearing a Muslim skullcap. We walked past him, the narrowness of the lane meant that even the slight bends in the road obscured what lay ahead. The lane had some kind of canopy on top, adding to the spookiness – it really looked as if it could run on forever, although we could not have walked more than a hundred yards or so.

All of a sudden, at a T junction with another lane running off to the right, we come up on an opening in the canopy and a big red gate up ahead, with the sign “Grand Mosque Ticket Office”. It's closed. Up the lane to the right, a bunch of people – Muslims not Han Chinese - are standing around in front of an open door. Inside, there is a lovely leafy courtyard, with more people sitting around in small groups. I realize it's the courtyard of the mosque - they've probably just had their morning prayers. We walk past and realize there’s nothing to see here, so we turn back and walk the way we’ve come. Can’t even see the mosque properly since there’s a high grey wall surrounding it. On the way back, at the corner opposite the ticket office, TPB finds a souvenir shop and is drawn in. Starts looking at porcelain masks. The young Han guy explains these correspond to the animals that represent the Chinese years – this one’s a Tiger, that one a Dragon, etc. TPB asks – which one is Goat? The guy hears “good”. Says all are good. Turns out he doesn’t know what a Goat is. We try mutton. I tentatively say baa. Nothing works. He runs off and returns with a set of cards with all the Years on them. Finally, we reach mutual understanding. TPB looks for the animals that correspond with certain specific years; finds them. A little half-hearted bargaining ensues, and an agreement is reached. The kid (good kid) packs our new masks into boxes, and we retrace our steps along the now awakening Artisan and Islamic Streets. By the time we return, it’s 8:05 and Louis is waiting in the hotel lobby. We go upstairs, pack the masks in with our already-packed bags (we’re Efficient), and are checked out and on the road in a whiff.

Shaanxi Historical Museum

Opens at 8:30, we’re there at 8:27. Louis persuades the museum staff to let us in anyway. Shaanxi is the province of which Xi’an is the capital -- I’d thought that the museum would be a good place to start our trip as we’d get some live historical context (as opposed to the books we’d been swotting up till then), plus so much of Chinese history is anchored in terms of the various dynasties that hearing the sequence a few times also helps us get our bearings. Going chronologically, Louis takes us through the four galleries, explaining several of the artifacts in great detail. He really likes to get his dates right (“This sign says x happened in 600 AD. I think that is incorrect. According to me, and I checked this on the internet, it happened in 601 AD.”) TPB gets a little impatient at his meticulousness and wanders off. Occasionally, I step back and take a photo. Whenever I see a map featuring either India or the Silk Road, I ask Louis to translate it for me. (Most signs are in Chinese.) Xi'an, formerly known as Chang'an (Eternal Peace) was the capital of China for over a thousand years so a lot of action took place in these parts. However several of the displays are quite interesting, not just from a historical perspective but esthetically as well. For instance, I took quite a liking to this thousand year old dog and horse with Attitude. But the highlight of the museum for me is the display featuring replicas of the terracotta warriors -– although we’ll visit the site and see the real deal after lunch, just the notion of being so close to this incredible relic makes me go all shivery inside. Midway through Gallery 2, L's cell phone alarm interrupts his lengthy discourse and he looks up and tells us a little worriedly that we’re running late.

Funny thing happens on the way out of the museum. Louis tells us that the driver, Mr. Li, is pissed off because we added the Big Wild Goose Pagoda to our list of things to do. I’d drawn that itinerary up in conjunction with the travel agent a couple of months ago, and the agent had assured me that it was an indicative program and we had “full flexibility” once on the ground. So that sounded a little weird to me but Louis said we shouldn’t worry and he’d take care of it – which is exactly what I’d have said anyway. So I said nothing; we exited the museum, Mr. Li was waiting in his car at the gate, and we drove to our next stop.

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda

Constructed for Xuan Tsang to live in and work his translating magic from when he finally returned from India 1400 years ago, this seven storey tower with the pre-Pisa lean and square cross-section is situated in its own grounds with its own little display house off to the side. TPB and I enter leaving Louis downstairs, and decide to climb the stairs to the top. Each floor is about ten feet square, and the center of each side has a little four foot passage extending outwards, with a glass window at the end. The steps, nice and comfortable at the lower levels, get both narrower and steeper as we go up. There’s nothing much on any floor except a few large works of calligraphy (which we cannot read which may be why I’m saying there’s nothing much). On the fifth floor, someone is praying to a drawing of a foot. It’s supposed to be the Buddha’s, I guess, but it looks a size 24 at least. We pause at a couple of the higher floors to take looks out each of the windows. Panoramic views of Xi’an city stretch in all four directions, and the city planners have been smart enough to have laid out broad avenues that appear to emanate from the base of the tower. I find it very interesting that *every* window has large quantities of small-denomination notes scattered on the outside – dropped by people in conjunction with their prayer.

The top floor is a lot more crowded than any of the others – there must be about twenty people here, which is quite a lot for such a small area. We take a quick look through each window again, then head down. On the way down I get a slight cramp in my left thigh – hadn’t warmed up well enough, evidently. As we reach the bottom, TPB also says that her legs are feeling “wobbly”. They’ll stay that way for the next couple of days. Such is the grandeur of the place. A trash can at the exit to the tower says, “Please Keep Cleaning”. If I were home, I would have added “Your Data”.

Louis meets us, looking unhappy. He claims the driver is also upset because we had asked to eat Yangrou Paoma for lunch, and that’s not available at the restaurant they had planned, and the substitute restaurant that Louis has in mind is not quite on the way. This time I quietly but firmly tell him that I am here with the assurance of full flexibility, and the driver can complain to my contact person at the travel agency if he wants. Louis says he’ll handle it – later in the day he apologizes for having brought it up at all and says he shouldn’t have told me. TPB and I can’t decide – was it naivety or some deeper-seated feud with the driver? We take a quick walk through the modern buildings surrounding the pagoda, which feature elaborate full-length murals depicting the life of Xuan Tsang. Right at the end of the last one I spy some Sanskritish text, and gain a few admiring looks from random people nearby when I try to read it out loud.

Xi’an Lao Sun Restaurant

Is where we are led for lunch. It’s on the third floor of a building that seems to be all restaurant, and as we step out from the lift I can’t tell whether ours is only on the third floor or actually occupies the whole building. Probably the former, is my feeling. Since it’s only 11:40 (we’re rushing so that we have enough time for the terracotta warriors) we get a window seat, and we get asked whether we’d like some beer. The day being hot as it is, I say yes, and ask for a good local brand. They say they have Tsingdao – that’s available in HK (and all over the world) so I’m not interested. So then they suggest some other Chinese-sounding name. None of us has heard of it, but L says that from the price it must be good. So I say okay. Two minutes later, the lady brings us a large Heineken.

L had explained to us that with Yangrou Paoma one needs to eat a cold dish, so we get led to the cold dish counter to make our choices. I go with the waitress’ first recommendation, sliced beef. TPB, sticking to her vegetarian principles, is more fussy. However (in shining validation of my belief system) every dish that she identifies as looking tasty and hence points to turns out to be an exotic meat preparation – first crab, then jellyfish, and finally ox-foot. I’d have been happy to share any. She settles on an old favorite – grated sprouts, celery, and carrot in sesame oil. For some reason L calls it “soya”.

Back at the table we get with the Yangrou Paoma ritual. The dish consists of six inch circles of hard round bread that need to be torn by hand into tiny little pieces and dropped in a bowl, and then they come and pour soup over it. The bread soaks up the broth, and it’s supposed to be the local specialty. The rules are very firm – the bread can only be torn by hand, and the smaller the pieces, the better the taste.

We get to work tearing our bread. We’re doing it wrong, for a waitress comes, snatches TPB’s bread, breaks it into quarters, and demonstrates how you should work at it from the inside out. Our bowls start slowly filling up with crumbs. This is hard work – the bread is not soft and the tips of my forefinger and thumb start going sore – but we crumble on manfully. (When I wrote this down, at 7:15 that evening, my fingers were still red.) I discover that rubbing my thumb along the inside make it flake away relatively painlessly, and I wonder why two thousand years of innovation hasn't brought a knife edge to this task. As we each finish the first of our two allotted breads, the waitress wordlessly takes away our bowls. We’re non-plussed. A minute later, they’re returned filled with broth, plonked back down on the table with our breadcrumbs floating inside. We catch someone’s eye and TPB mimes “spoon”. Miraculously, two soup spoons and a ladle materialize. There’s some grated spring onion, some marinated garlic, and some hot sauce on a side plate, and mixing it all up in the broth makes it just yummy. The lamb in my soup is heavenly. This was so worth it, and in fact it gets better as the meal progresses and the crumbs soak up the flavors with increasing intensity. By the time it ends, we’re stuffed and I’m happy. The hard work was well worth it.

L and the driver have been eating at the other end of the restaurant. Once, at the beginning of the meal, L stopped by to see how the crumbling was going, and nodded his approval much like a benevolent junior school teacher. Later, he tells us that he had in fact taught middle school for two years. After we finish I cross the now-crowded restaurant towards their table to see if they’re done as well but they’re not so I don’t disturb them and just walk back. By 12:40 he comes round to our table. He’s settled the bill, so we leave. Next stop: terracotta warriors *and horses*.


Blogger Szerelem said...

its bad manners to leave your chopsticks inside the bowl like that you know. :P

7/25/2007 1:03 PM  
Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

I go to China and get fashionable boiled plantain.

You go and get Yangrou Paoma.


7/25/2007 4:07 PM  
Blogger km said...

Dude, beef curry with carrots and mutton dumpling for breakfast?

7/25/2007 7:07 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

in south china, definitely, but that's because the bowl contains rice and letting chopsticks stick out of rice signifies a death of an acquaintance. i'm not so certain about the mores central china (where rice is, after all, much more of a luxury).

zap, km:
hold on for the ride -- you ain't seen nuffin yet :-D

7/25/2007 11:28 PM  
Blogger ??! said...

yeh, seriously, beef dumplings for breakfast?

7/26/2007 3:38 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

why not? that's dim sum.

7/26/2007 9:03 PM  
Anonymous xz said...

I showed the snap of the "hard round bread" to a chinese colleague and he was quick to exclaim that "this is small one, they come in very big ones too. Very good!"

7/27/2007 8:17 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

welcome, and thanks for the validation :-) (with those initials, you're not chinese too, are you?) i'm quite prepared to believe that we got served the individual sized portions. i shudder to think how long it would have taken to crumble the bigger loaves.

7/27/2007 11:07 AM  

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