Featuring: clay soldiers, shirtless men, secret noodles, lots of meat — and the drinking-and-driving poster boy
XI’AN, Shaanxi — Xi’an is one of the world’s oldest cities, with ancient city walls, cherished cultural monuments and world-renowned archaeological sites. My first stop there was the five-star Sheraton Hotel. My next stop was an internet bar. Funny that while on a four-month tour of China, often the last thing I feel like doing is touring. Traveling can be tiring.
Xi’an, a city in need of a good scrubbing, was the first destination on this trip I feel I can safely describe as seedy. The long stares I had grown accustomed to were now sideways glances. And I felt I was always one wrong move away from being ripped off. If Shanghai is a businessman in a fake designer suit, Xi’an is a used car salesman, all sly smiles, sweaty palms and false handshakes.
Of course, the same could be said of several Chinese cities that cater to a steady flow of foreign tourists, pockets bulging with cameras and cash. And, thanks to the Army of Terracotta Warriors, considered the most important archaeological discovery of the 20th century, Xi’an ranks up there with Beijing and Shanghai as a “must-see” destination in China. I had spent much of the previous two weeks hiding out in small, unassuming locales — places where the idea of having a foreign visitor is, well, completely foreign to most people — so my arrival in any “important” city like Xi’an would have felt like a slap in the face … especially after more than 20 hours of traveling.
My first Xi’an taxi driver welcomed me to the city by trying to get me to pay RMB 50 for the less-than-RMB-20 — I had this intel on good authority — drive from the train station to the Sheraton. He refused to put his meter down — never a good sign — and rambled on and on with his grifter logic. I protested in Chinese initially. Then I yelled a few choice words in my native tongue (useless, I know, but in such situations I find that swearing in English makes me feel better). Then I ignored him and stared out the window, knowing I was never going to pay RMB 50. I called my Xi’an contact Roboo (more on the origins of that name later) and handed the phone to the driver. A few minutes and one heated exchange later, the driver hastily handed the phone back to me.
“You will pay him 20,” Roboo said. “The driver was impressed. He said you are a smart foreigner.”
A pretty girl in a white skirt, white jacket and white gloves opened my taxi door at the Sheraton. She smiled with lips painted red and said, “Good morning, sir. Do you need help with your, uh, bag?”
“No. I got it. Thanks.”
A bellhop smiled, said “Good morning, sir” and pushed the revolving door for me. By the looks of the lobby dwellers, it appeared I had arrived late for a Caucasian convention. Was this Xi’an or Chicago? I wondered how many of these foreigners would have passed my taxi driver’s tourist aptitude test. I studied their sandals, their fanny packs, their Abercrombie & Fitch and concluded that most probably skipped that exam and opted for the tour bus instead.
I suppose I should explain what the hell I was doing staying at the five-star Sheraton in the first place. It was my girlfriend’s treat. She was going to be in Xi’an on business anyway, so we made a long weekend out of it. We may do something similar when I hit Beijing.
I arrived early on Friday and immediately knocked out some necessities — shave, shower, laundry, shower again. It is impossible to keep anything clean while traveling in China.
I met up with Roboo and some of his friends for dinner. They took me to a place known by locals as lao ji chang, or “the old airport,” because the restaurant rests on land formerly occupied by the Xi’an airport, which has since moved about an hour outside of the city. I wonder how much my taxi driver would have charged for that ride.
I first learned of Roboo, real name Xue Xiang Hua, from Shanghai blogger Wang Jian Shuo, who has helped me more than once with the planning of this trip. Roboo and I have kept in touch leading up to my arrival in Xi’an, his hometown. Roboo is a 27-year-old electric engineer. He is married with a two-year-old son. (He took Roboo, his “English” name, from the name of a website he worked on a few years back.)
Joining Roboo and I at the old airport were Roboo’s longtime friend Shi Jian Yu — “You can call him Snake,” Roboo said — a graduate student at Xi’an Northwest Polytechnical University, and Snake’s girlfriend, a law student at the same school. (I don’t recall the name of Snake’s girlfriend, but I do remember having to ask for it. I have noticed on this trip that rarely are females introduced. In many cases they are not even acknowledged.)
The old airport is basically a large patio shared by three “restaurants,” more like street stalls on steroids. We sat in the section that specializes in meat on a stick. (All sections appeared to specialize in sweaty, shirtless, spitting, overweight men with pants legs pulled above their knees. I didn’t order any of those.)
Servers bring the kebabs to your table in huge handfuls. And after our dinner was delivered, our table looked like one big greasy game of Pick-Up-Sticks. The skewers are thinner and covered in less meat (and fat — same thing to many Chinese) than the ones I have grown accustomed to in Shanghai. Not to worry, Roboo said the average Xi’an-ite downs around 50 sticks in one sitting … easily. It’s easy to eat to excess in Xi’an, and by the looks of this kebab place’s clientele, many do.
Each stick, by the way, costs just two mao, or a little more than a penny. And you only pay for what you eat. When you finish, a server comes by and counts your used skewers.
“What happens to the food we don’t eat?” I asked hesitantly.
“They recook it,” Roboo said, seasoning stuck to his greasy, smiling lips. “And serve it to someone else.”
We ate lamb, beef and some kind of kidney and washed it all down with Bing Feng, or “Ice Peak,” soda — a Xi’an staple, a local version of Orange Fanta that comes in cute 70s-style reusable glass bottles — and Kugua Beer, which is made from the Chinese “bitter melon,” has a greenish hue and tastes pretty much like every other Chinese beer tastes … like Budweiser.
No one seemed to know the old airport’s address, or even if it had one. But hundreds of people obviously knew where to find it. The place oozes with local flavor — and other various juices — and I thought some of my readers might want to check it out. Roboo said he’s never seen a foreigner there.
“That’s OK,” I said. “I don’t need a definite address. Just the street name would be fine.”
“I already asked for the street name,” Roboo said. “No one knows.”
Bliss, my girlfriend, arrived later that evening. We spent the next 15 or so hours at the Sheraton: soaking in the swimming pool, ordering room-service and discussing possible explanations for why the programming on HBO Asia sucks so much. (Overheard at the apparently Americans-only jacuzzi: “I just assume all of my classmates do drugs,” said one teenage girl, “until it’s proven otherwise.”)
Bliss and I spent Saturday on our own, assuming the role of tourists (everybody else was doing it). We took the RMB 5 minibus one hour out of the city to the Terracotta Warriors and paid the pricey — for China at least — RMB 90 fee to see one of the world’s several dozen “Eighth Wonders of the World.”
Roboo remembers when it cost RMB 1 to get in. Really, with the money earned from this place, couldn’t they invest in some air conditioning? If not for the visitors, then for the artifacts? It was a sauna in there. I’m pretty sure I saw one of the warriors sweat. (Seriously, is there a reason these excavation pits appear not to be climate controlled? I thought most fragile artifacts — especially ones more than 2,000 years old — were sensitive to things like heat and humidity. Can someone with some expertise fill me in?)
For those of you in the dark on just what this Army of Terracotta Warriors is, let me admit that before I moved to China nearly two years ago, I had never heard of it, either. But then I’m someone who grew up thinking this guy was the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”
This underground army of thousands upon thousands of life-size clay soldiers and horses was summoned by Qin Shihuang — emperor of China from 246 BC to 210 BC — to watch over his by-all-accounts-equally-ostentatious tomb. Discovered in 1974 by peasants digging a well, more than 7,000 figures have been excavated so far, each one owning unique facial characteristics. They stand in battle alignment, row after row, ready to defend the dead man who orchestrated their creation as an everlasting gift to his own greatness.
At the time we would have called Emperor Qin Shihuang an egomaniac, a narcissist. We would have called his project a lavish waste of manpower and money. Well, thank God for history’s egomaniacs. Without them, we laypeople would never make such grand discoveries.
Lined up before you, standing in the same dirt they stood 2,000 years ago, the warriors are intimidating. They are eerie. And, when you meditate on their origins (a couple hundred years before a boy named Jesus was allegedly born in a little town called Bethlehem) and scale (the warriors we have found are likely just a small battalion of the entire army Qin had created), they are downright awe-inspiring.
But you can never meditate for long while looking at the Terracotta Warriors: A Chinese tourist will push you out of the way for a photo; or an American tourist will try to say something profound, to anyone within earshot; or you yourself will just get too damn hot.
Touring can be tedious work. And outrunning the souvenir hawkers can be tiring. Bliss and I had neither the interest nor the energy to visit anymore famous sites that day. It was more room service and bad movies on HBO Asia for us.
It is a Chinese custom for future business partners to first meet socially before any business is discussed. I’m not sure if it is a Chinese custom for the participants’ boyfriends to tag along for the meet-and-greet lunch, but that’s what happened last Sunday. My job was to smile and nod — and, as it turned out, drink beer.
The prospective business partner and his driver met us in the Sheraton lobby, and we drove 100 feet to the restaurant next door for lunch. We took our spots around the circular table: tall Chinese businessman, the driver, me, Bliss and Shirley, Bliss’ translator. (Bliss actually understands quite a bit of Chinese, but with Chinese clients, it’s best if she plays dumb. They want their foreign business partners to be stereotypically foreign … like me. Bliss, an American-born Chinese, actually has to deal with a lot of crap from ignorant Chinese clients who protest that she doesn’t look American enough, even though she’s got the passport, the accent and, um, the attitude.)
“Pijiu?” was the first thing tall Chinese businessman said to me. “Beer?”
It was still morning.
“Oh, no, thank you,” I said through Shirley while both smiling and nodding. “We’ve got a lot of things planned for today.”
And so tall Chinese businessman proceeded to order three big bottles of beer. I wonder how many he would have ordered had I actually wanted to drink.
Soon, as is the tradition in frat houses and Chinese board rooms the world over, the beer chugging started. I felt obligated to participate. I didn’t want my girlfriend or her company to lose face … so I poured glass after glass of beer into mine.
Ganbei! Bottom’s up! Chug. Show the empty glass. The three men at the table drank beer. The women toasted with a beverage of runny yogurt. All things considered, I was happy to have the beer.
Curiously, most of the chugging sessions were started by our driver, whose serious gaze made each “Cheers” seem like a challenge.
“How much can you drink?” he asked me through Shirley. Interestingly, I believe the last time someone asked me that question was almost exactly 10 years ago … when I was a sophomore in college. I think the kid who asked me was a freshman. Freshmen always ask the stupid questions.
I knew I needed to answer, and I tried to think of an appropriate response. How much can I drink? Probably more than I would want to, I thought. I considered saying, “A lot. Rest assured, I can drink a lot.” But it seemed, based on the intensity of his stare, that the driver wanted a number. I didn’t want to say something too low, for fear that he might just smack me. I didn’t want to say a number too high, for fear that I might ruin my girlfriend’s business deal, and that he might make me prove my statement … before the end of lunch.
So, I said I might drink six big bottles — which I think is about a dozen or so normal sized beers — over the course of an average night out at a bar. It seemed like a respectable enough figure, one that suggested I can drink, but that I didn’t have a drinking problem. And six, I believe, is a lucky number in China. So six big bottles, that’s the number I went with.
The driver scoffed. He audibly scoffed. Then he proceeded to tell me that he and his friends can each drink, and often do, 25 kilograms of beer — a stomach-splitting 6.6 gallons — over the course of six hours. I thought perhaps there was an error in translation — the driver was about half my size. I had Shirley follow up on his figures. She did, more than once. And he confirmed his claim, more than once. (Skeptical, we repeated the driver’s boast to a taxi driver later in the day. He scoffed, too: “Impossible.”)
“Beer is boring,” the driver continued. He usually consumes 75 proof alcohol, and was disappointed we weren’t drinking that with lunch. He and three friends usually drink six bottles of that stuff … on a slow night.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“30,” I said. It was easy to continue smiling and nodding — this guy was hilarious.
“Much younger than me. How old do you think I am?”
I thought he was in his early 40s, so I said, “35?”
He was 43.
My mostly liquid lunch ended, finally. But the driver, his face now bright red, didn’t. He offered me a cigarette.
“No thanks. I don’t smoke.”
The driver was dumbfounded. He looked at me with disgust. He slowly removed the pack from my face. It seemed he was finally giving up on me.
“It is antisocial not to smoke,” he said before leaving me with this tried-and-true Chinese proverb: “You should practice smoking. And you should try to drink more.”
I smiled, nodded and walked away, slightly buzzed … and very thankful that I don’t do business with the Chinese.
Compared to most Chinese cities, Xi’an — at least inside the ancient city walls — is laid out in a rather orderly manner. But the grid-like street system seems to be one of very few remnants of Xi’an’s storied past. Much of the city looks like almost any other “modern” Chinese city. That is generally not a compliment.
“This is a really old street,” Roboo said to me as we strolled through Xi’an’s Muslim quarter, a lively area that gives the city some much-needed diversity.
I looked at the boxy buildings around us. “Old? Really?”
“Well, the buildings are all new.”
“So, what is old then?”
“Just the name. And the location. They are old.”
If cities like Shanghai are building up, Xi’an appeared to be a city building down. There were ditches everywhere. Perhaps they are digging for reminders of the ancient city that was once the center of the Chinese universe, the city that once ranked with Rome and Constantinople as one of the best in the world.
“Too much dirt,” Roboo said as we walked past one of the ditches.
Roboo was an interesting character. He refused to have his photo taken and he used the word “interesting” in very, well, interesting ways. As we were walking down a touristy street, Roboo pointed at one of the cheap plastic souvenirs — a little boy who pisses when you pour water into his head — and said, “This is very interesting.” Later, at the Great Mosque, perhaps the oldest and largest mosque in China, Roboo pointed at an old stone tablet, hundreds of years old, covered with ornate carvings and characters. It too was “very interesting.”
My good friend Johnson, real name Zhang Jian, arrived in Xi’an on Sunday afternoon. He’ll be joining me for about a month of this journey, and I’m excited to have him along. Johnson is Shanghainese, but he speaks English like he’s from Cheboygan. He has mastered the language like no other Chinese person I have met. And he did so by sacrificing a social life in college. He spent most of his waking hours listening to, memorizing and reciting Voice of America radio.
Americans and Chinese alike always mistake Johnson for an American. Indeed, he works at Shanghai’s nationally-famous New Oriental School … teaching American pronunciation.
Johnson has never left China. And, until now, the farthest he had ever traveled from Shanghai was Beijing. It will be, as Roboo might say, interesting to watch Johnson react to the rest of his country, parts of which are guaranteed to be completely foreign to a self-described “city kid” from Shanghai.
We met up with Johnson near the Xi’an Drum Tower. He was wearing yellow Adidas running shoes, blue jeans, aviator sunglasses and a short-sleeve green button up shirt with a “U.S. Army” patch over the left breast pocket. On his left shoulder were tags that read “Special Forces” and “Airborne.” No wonder people mistake him for an American.
I had one night left at the Sheraton, so we headed to Snake’s school to set Johnson up in a dorm room, free of charge. I would stay at the dorm the following night — or at least that was the plan. As we walked through the dormitory gate, a security guard stopped us: No foreigners allowed.
This happens in China. And your first reaction is racism. But that doesn’t make much sense for a nation so desperate for tourism dollars. Just for fun, we asked the security guard — who looked like he was about 21 — why I wasn’t allowed to even walk inside. His answer? “I don’t know.”
Roboo offered his own explanation. “I think they want to show the good part of China to the foreigners,” he said. “They want to show that the life of all Chinese is very, very good. This, of course, is not the truth.”
So Johnson was fine in the dorm, even with his U.S. Army get-up. But we still needed to figure out where I was going to stay. Roboo said he wished he could have us at his place, but his parents were living there for the summer because he has air conditioning. With his wife and 2-year-old son there as well, things were already a little crowded.
“My company hotel is very, very cheap,” Roboo said. “But no foreigners. Maybe the room is not good enough.”
Snake was pretty sure he could get me into the foreign teachers dorm at his school — but it didn’t matter anyway. The morning after his night in the dormitory, Johnson sent me the following text message: “We need to get a hotel. No air conditioning. No shower. Lots of mosquitoes. Hardly slept at all.”
So a hotel it was. With air conditioning. And a shower. All for RMB 128, or $16. I warned Johnson: “This might be the nicest place you stay in for the rest of the trip.” (As I write this, one week later, that statement has proven to be true. Boy, do I have some stories for you about Johnson and outdoor bathrooms.)
We ate dinner that night at a large, messy Muslim barbecue joint. And I wondered aloud why I had seen so many fat people in Xi’an, more in two days than I have seen in nearly two years in Shanghai. Really, it’s a place that swallows up any preconceptions about the stereotypical Chinese body type.
The fact that Xi’an men are fond of dining shirtless in restaurants may have brought this issue more out in the open here than, say, a more “conservative” city that prefers to keep its weight problem covered in clothing. But I’m fairly certain that somewhere between Yichang and Xi’an I crossed China’s national fat line.
“I think you have your reasons right here,” Johnson said pointing at our dinner table. It was covered in what looked to be about a half sheep’s worth of meat shoved onto little metal sticks. Another reason is the noodle — a weight-watchers worst enemy — which replaces rice in the typical Northerner’s diet. Shaanxi is famous for noodles, with more than 100 varieties, many that can’t be found anywhere else in the world.
Roboo told us about one of the region’s better-known noodles, biang biang mian, which is just as famous for the way it’s written as it is for the way it tastes. The Chinese character for biang, which you won’t find in any dictionaries, takes a finger-cramping 40 strokes to write. To remember how to write it, Roboo had to recite a poem to himself. And when he was finished, the markings on my tablet looked more like a map to hidden treasure than any sort of Earthly language.
Johnson and I set out to find biang biang mian on our last day in Xi’an. We asked shopkeeper after shopkeeper, and each just pointed us further on down the road. I started to suspect that biang biang mian was the snipe hunting of Shaanxi Province, a big joke that everyone but Johnson and I were in on. But we eventually found the place. And, let me tell you, I could easily get fat on biang biang mian if I stayed in Xi’an. This stuff is good.
The noodle dough is rolled flat and pulled into long strips a couple inches wide. Imperfect squares are pulled from the strip and tossed in a big vat of boiling water. When cooked, smooth and tender, the noodles are fished out and served with ground pork, vegetables and a brown sauce with a little bit of bite.
We talked to Zhao Jian, owner of the noodle shop at 222 Shang Jian Lu, who explained that biang biang noodles are “one of the wonders of Shaanxi,” a secret technique and recipe that hasn’t left the province since biang biang were born more than 1,000 years ago. There are a few restaurants that serve the noodle in Xi’an, but Zhao said biang biang are biggest in nearby Xianyang, where they got their start. Of course, Zhao, a Xianyang native, claims to have the best biang biang in Xi’an.
Back at the Muslim restaurant, Roboo was checking the fapiaos, or receipts, to make sure they weren’t counterfeit. Bliss, who received a fake RMB 50 note from her taxi driver after the long drive from the airport, needed them for her expense report.
“There are fakes of everything here,” Roboo said, inspecting each printed sheet closely. “One man in Xi’an, his wife was fake. She turned out to be a man.”
More proof of the importance of pre-marital sex.
I spent much of my final two days in Xi’an writing at an internet bar — a huge one, with hundreds of computers, couches, food servers, clients who spit on the floor and “no smoking” signs that no one paid attention to. During the same time, Johnson tried to see every tourist attraction in Xi’an. He was almost successful.
“I hate to leave. I love walled cities,” Johnson said to me as we were leaving town.
“How many other walled cities have you been to,” I asked.
“This is the first.”
“So, what do you love about walled cities?”
“I like the look of the walls.”
“And they make me feel safe.”
“But there are big holes in the walls. Anyone can get in.”
“Of course. We need the holes. Because sometimes you need to leave.”
And so we did.
Click here for photos.