Half Time


The sun is shining outside of this little café, overlooking the Xi’an Foreign Languages University.  I keep hoping this will translate into an actual warm day, but alas, it is still too early for that to happen.  A couple of times I’ve been tricked into thinking the spring buds must be just a few days’ away, only to be answered with a fresh flurry of snow the following morning, and the drab cloying smog sitting heavy over the city.


I believe I am now almost exactly half-way through my time in Xi’an.  It’s been an interesting time to be here during the biggest cultural celebration of the year – the Spring Festival or Chinese Lunar New Year.  In the UK, we all carefully select how many work days we want to use up as holiday over the Christmas break.  There’s no need to consider this here.  It seems the whole of China takes a pretty solid 10 days off (or more in some cases).  Apparently this is to concentrate on the more important matter of blowing up as many fireworks as can be reasonably let off in one day.  Or indeed one two week period.



Today is the fifteenth and final day of the Spring Festival.  It is the Lantern Festival, otherwise known as the Yuan Xiao Festival.  (“Yuan” is the name of the first lunar month in the Chinese calendar, and “xiao” is an old Chinese word meaning “night”.)  The end of the festive period is marked with more fireworks (no doubt many thousands) and the lighting of paper lanterns and releasing them up into the sky.  So I’m looking forward to seeing this all later this evening.


Xi’an itself is quite an attractive city.  Bearing in mind I am staying in a sprawling old city in central China through mid-winter, I am almost surprised that I am still managing to maintain an appreciation for this place.  A lot of effort has been made to modernise the city and develop quite extensive public projects which make the place quite smart, even if the choice of lighting may be a little brash for western tastes. 



Looking north from the South Gate under the Spring Festival lights


At Xi’an’s heart, the Old City retains a complete circuit of the ancient city wall, which is massive enough that you could probably ride around it in a motorcar.  Of course, the best one is allowed to do is trundle around on a bicycle, and even that will take you at least an hour to complete the loop.  At each point of the compass stands a massive gateway into the old city, the most impressive of which is the South Gate.  This has been a great congregation point during the Spring Festival celebrations and was the brightest lit of the many overdone decorations throughout the whole city.  The whole affect makes the Oxford Street Christmas lights in London look like a positively demure effort by comparison.



The South Gate, decked out for Chinese New Year


Then you have the Tang Paradise park.  The Tang Dynasty ruled Imperial China from the 7th through to the beginning of the 10th century AD.  It is regarded as the cultural highpoint of Chinese history and civilization and is particularly associated with Xi'an which was its imperial capital, then going by the name of Chang'An, which means the city of Perpetual Peace.  In its heyday, this was the most populous city on earth.  So you can see why the Xianese hold the Tang in such affection. 



Tang Paradise Qujiang Lake, Xi'an


The Tang Paradise park attempts to recreate some of the art, architecture and culture of the Tang for people to wander amongst.  It is covers a huge area and in some ways, it is an affront to good taste, but in fairness only to the European historical snob.  When you consider what it has probably cleared away, the clean walkways, the parkland and lakes and the ornamental pagodas must be a welcome development, even if the “brand-spanking-newness” of the place may offend notions of historical authenticity. 



Tang Paradise monument and pillars, Xi'an


The northern section of this huge area is an expansive square which is mostly taken up with (I’m told) the world’s biggest fountain (at least in surface area).  It is indeed massive.  (Roughly 400m x 150m at my estimate, perhaps bigger.)  The fountain leads up a shallow progression of steps to the base of the Big Goose Pagoda at the southern end – a rather plain-looking tower that stands in the courtyard of an old monastery.  Every evening at 8.30pm sharp the fountain launches into an elaborate show of music, water and light.  It’s certainly quite a sight, and one can take up position right in the middle of the jet sprays to get a full sense of immersion.  The music lurches from East to West – the William Tell overture one minute to who knows what Chinese piece the next, and then back to the Dance of the Hours and other “classical pops for the masses” from the European masters.  I’m told in summer you can’t keep people from chasing about in the fountain to cool off from the oppressive heat, but certainly at this time of year the last thing one wants to do is get drenched.



Water, music and light show in front of the Big Goose Pagoda, Xi'an


Around the rest of the city the main drags are all lined with trees.  I suppose come springtime when they come out in leaf, much of the city must be very attractive.  As it is, the trees do a good job hiding the usual bland architecture of an average street in China and make the place as pleasant as one could expect for this time of year. 



Xianese Street


The most interest parts of the city are the more characteristic areas like the Muslim Quarter, in the heart of the old city, which is a teeming collection of small shops, street vendors  and alleyways selling a seemingly inexhaustible array of different kinds of food.  At first blush, one may be a little circumspect at trying all these – anyone fancy beef intenstine on a stick? - but the last couple of times I’ve been a bit braver and of course found that most stuff I try tastes very good.  Aside from the food, there are the usual tourist shops selling Mao’s Little Red Books, various old communist paraphernalia, as well as more modern stuff from gift shops.  (I always think of my younger brother when I pass the store that has all the pistols and handguns).


The people are very different in the Muslim Quarter.  They are mostly the Hui people, with a few Uighurs thrown in.  Their faces are rounder than the majority Han chinese; their noses bigger; their cheeks rosier.  Almost all of the men working in the shops and food stores wear the little white fez cap or taqiyah of their faith, while the women wear the hijaab.  Quite a few of the small restaurants seem to have a ratio of two staff to each patron.  At particularly slow times, several of these will be sent out to press gang you into their restaurant with a big grin and a gentle steering of the elbow.  The whole atmosphere of the quarter is completely different to the rest of the city – there’s all the bustle and noise and smells and clatter of the lands further to the west.  More evocative of Arabian bazaars than the heart of the old Chinese empire.  It certainly sets the tone for the next part of my trip – and when I go there my imagination has already begun to take off westward along the Silk Road. 


Then in other parts of the city, if you dig around a bit, you can find yourself wandering through blackened alleyways, past steaming towers of dumpling baskets, stacks of fresh fruit (even strawberries from somewhere), noodle bars and streets dusty from the winter’s dirt.  This is where you can see the ordinary life of the Xianese carrying on, as people grab dumplings for breakfast or a plastic bag filled with noodles to save for lunch, and hurry off to work. 



Back alley diners and market stalls, Xi'an


My living arrangements here in Xian have been a bit jumbled.  I arrived planning on staying “with a Chinese family”, as arranged through the language school for which I am working (called International House).  I was told this would be a little more expensive than simply finding a room in an apartment.  What I wasn’t told was that I would be staying with the director’s parents.   Once I’d figured out quite how cost ineffective this was for me, yet cost effective for my employer, I took my leave and ducked out, back to the hostel I’d stayed in for a time before Christmas. 


However, I had the very good fortune of meeting a wonderful family called the Handleys.  Grant and Jean Handley are a South African couple with 5 children, all under 9 (I think).  My first week back in Xi’an, I had the fairly unique opportunity of spending a day with them skiing in the nearby Qin Ling mountains, only about 40kms away, retracing the final ride of my journey to Xi’an.  Not knowing what to expect, it turned out to be a very fun day, alternately helping Grant manage three of his kids through their first attempts on skis or bombing down a short slope on blow-up rubber rings.  His son David appeared to be a natural and did a fine job weaving amongst the Chinese day-trippers whose tactic seemed to be simply point the ski tips downhill, let gravity do the rest and hope for the best.  Fortunately, the hill consisted of just one slope which couldn’t have been more than 250m long.  Whatever is the Chinese for “Watch out, here I come!”, it must have been shouted many times during the day, as yet another human cannonball careered to the bottom of the slope, apparently unconcerned by any damage that he might do to himself or anyone else, or at least incapable of doing anything to prevent it.   




Grant is an english teacher at the Xian Petroleum University and, it turns out, a middle brother of three who is almost exactly my age.  Suffice to say, we had quite a lot in common (family situations aside) and he and Jean very kindly invited me to flat-sit for them for a month while they went away to Hong Kong for a break over the Spring Festival.  The sole condition was that I feed their fish.  I feel terrible to report that while we started the month with 10 fish, only 6 now remain.  I must have inadvertently knocked off the oxygen pump which I only noticed a couple of days later when I approached the tank for feeding time and thought to myself that the fish must be hungry because they were all swimming so close to the surface.   On closer inspection I discovered a few of them were swimming upside down. And did not appear to be moving. 


Anyway, Grant was very forgiving of my negligent slaughter of his fish.  And I spent three very comfortable weeks looking after their flat. 


Aside from the Handleys, I also connected with a great Australian family through some Hong Kong contacts.  Sam and Julie have been out in Xi'an for a while now with their two sons.  Sam is a doctor here and Julie is involved in caring for orphans with HIV.  They are active in not only educating people about the scale of this problem but also about the processes for adoption of these orphans.  Only a couple of weeks ago they received the good news that their own adoption of a little girl called Maggie had been approved.  She's only 3 and very sweet and already seems completely bi-lingual.  Anyway, from my perspective they too have been extremely welcoming and kind to me.


The fourth week of my month flat-sitting for the Handleys – which was the week just passed – was the final week of the Spring Festival break for the language school.  Most of my foreign language teacher colleagues took the opportunity to travel to warmer latitudes in Cambodia, Malaysia, Hainan and various other places.  I, on the other hand, spent one quite lonely week in Xi’an – albeit punctuated with an unimaginably large barrage of fireworks going on about me all week - and then flew north to visit my great friend, John O’Loghlen, in Beijing. 


John and his fellow kiwi business partner, Jade Gray, are currently taking the Beijing pizza market by storm with their new delivery business, Gung Ho Pizzas.   It is no exaggeration to say, these are the best pizzas I have ever tasted.  For effort and attention to detail alone, these guys deserve to smash it out of the park – which I am sure they will do since they are both super-bright and infectious in their energy.  I was content to spend the week variously hanging out with John (“Beijing bromantics” as he insists on calling it), eating more than several of his pizzas, and otherwise amusing myself in Beijing coffee bars or educating myself about the ins and outs of China by reading (and stealing) his books. 



Probably the best pizza delivery business in the world


I also made the acquaintance of a friend of John's called Julian Wilson, who is a co-founder of a business called Khunu, which is a clothes company with a conscience and a sense of adventure, and which manufactures clothing (mainly sweaters and tops) made from yak wool from Tibet.  He's recruited me to be one of his blog writers in return for a top.  It seemed like a reasonable deal.  You can check out their website here and see what they're about.


I failed miserably to raise any interest in following the tourist trail in Beijing, it being too cold and also since I’ve seen the Forbidden City and the other more impressive sights during previous visits.  However, I was treated to something out of the ordinary on the night that John’s girlfriend, Edwina, arrived with her good friend, Kate – fresh off the plane from Sri Lanka (which must have been a bit of shock to their system).  Through his Kiwi diplomatic connections, John had secured us all an invitation to a cocktail party at the North Korean embassy in celebration of the birthday of the “most glorious leader Kim Jong-Il”.  Or at least John had established that the invitation list was sufficiently lax that we would probably all get in.  Which turned out to be true.  We all agreed that it must be a lot easier to enter into North Korean territory than to leave it.  And certainly I imagine the North Korean ambassador may well be glad to have all the friends he can get. 


It is surely a sign of the changes going on in the heart of communist China, that one can now be a little surprised at stepping down from Chinese officialdom to an even lower level in “austerity chic”.  No one seemed to care in the slightest who we were or whether we should be there as we made our way past the security guards into the less than fabulous reception hall.  Admittedly we were a little late with some guests already leaving, but the undeniably bland room made the whole occasion feel rather flat.  At one end of the large grey room on an otherwise empty wall were mounted two badly painted portraits – one of Kim Jong-Il, the other I suppose to be his father.  The world now knows that his son will be up there too one day.  Let it never be said that equity and socialist ideals do not reign supreme in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  Along the side wall ran an enormous painting of a turbulent sea thrashing against a rocky coastline in the foreground.  For sheer size, it was impressive, but I don’t think it would make it onto any art collectors’ short list.  I tried to imagine what it might signify.  Perhaps the thrashing of the relentless forces of democracy and the corruptive influence of the west against the immovable resolution of the last bastion of true socialism?  As the sun set in the picture, the sea would calm and the waves would fade away, leaving the rocks standing proud and defiant forever.




Anyway, being so late I can’t say we got the full exposure to what a night with the North Korean ambassador was all about.  There were a handful of authentic-looking military attachés networking over the latest dual-purpose technology, no doubt, dressed in ill-tailored uniforms from Moldova, Belarus and other such lively holiday destinations.  Aside from meeting some pleasant Kiwi diplomats, I was introduced to a representative from the Congo.  The only man I have yet met for whom the introduction, “this is Theo Brun.  He’s currently cycling from Hong Kong back to the UK” was a non-sequitur.  Apparently this caused some amusement to my new kiwi friends though I barely noticed it, being distracted by the designer labels that this man had left on the outside of his suit which I found at least as remarkable as anything I’m trying to do. 


I did at last stand before the ambassador, a small but slightly severe looking man in uniform.  As I attempted to launch into some kind of diplomatic repartee, it didn’t occur to me that he wouldn’t understand English.  When this became clear, some garbled Chinese on my part, which was no better understood, was quickly followed with the time-honoured English rip-cord – “oh dear, I appear to have finished my drink.”  (He’s probably used to this.)


The rest of the time in Beijing was spent visiting an old school-friend, Edward Nightingale and his wife Bella, who are both teaching English at Dulwich College in Beijing.  Somehow I was lucky enough to catch them between a bout of violent food-poisoning on his part, and the giving (of) birth to their first son, Oscar, by Bella almost within hours of my visit.  It was good to test the strength of the “ties that bind” (as it were) and once more find that they still hold true. 


John and the girls and I did manage to squeeze in a short trip up to a village north of Beijing - where John and Jade have done a remarkable job renovating a barn for weekend visits - which nestles in a natural amphitheatre, with the Great Wall running along its ridge.  At least ten degrees colder than Beijing, it was nevertheless a heart-warming time, spent with good friends, made all the more cosy by having to sleep in the same bed – a traditional “kang”, complete with a roaring fire underneath, that could sleep probably 25 bodies at a push but only had to cater for four on this occasion.



John (always pleased to see me) with his alternate backdrop of

the Great Wall just visible on the ridge


So here I am.  Back in Xi’an.  I’ve now moved into an apartment with my Mandarin teacher and her friend which is very basic.  And cheap.  I seem to have freed myself of almost every creature comfort including a mattress.  No doubt I am very far from the lowest rungs of this city – we do at least have gas and electricity and a tv – but that’s about it. 



My room


Nevertheless, it is an interesting (and temporary) experience.  I am very optimistic about the launch of the second part of my journey.  I now have my Uzbek and Kyrgyz visas – in my mind the vital pieces in the jigsaw for me to continue on my way.  So in the meantime, I must stay fit, healthy and sane……and watch and wait……for those first spring buds to break through.

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