The visit to Xi'an was a big deal for many reasons. One of these was a chance to finally reunite with my old housemate, Squirrel. She works in Beijing, but we'd agreed to meet up and she was flying into Xi'an.
Due to some aforementioned problems, things didn't work out as planned. Squirrel had also been hit by delays, forcing her to arrive for a one-day visit rather than the intended long weekend. Meanwhile, the combination of sleeplessness and jetlag had left me with the curious sensation of having had my internal organs, skeleton and musculature replaced, in their entirety, with some sort of dough. Like a fairy-tale doll, lovingly crafted by a childless artisan and awakened to miraculous life by the touch of a passing sprite - one who blends the Johnsonesquely-inept bumbling of modern lore with the disconcertingly-amoral whimsicality of older tales - I moved as one to whom the human body is a new and troubling thing. Feet dragged. Arms moved with enebriate care, guided by a brain whose cogs whirred as slowly as the mills of God. My eyes had a tendency to drift shut even while walking, giving the outward impression that I was always listening to some quiet inner voice guiding my steps for an inscrutable purpose of its own.
Nevertheless, we finally met and there was much rejoycing. Also much apologizing (for blamemess lateness on her part, and for inability to use brain and so forth on mine). Our first priority, near enough, was to find a place to chat and also sustenance. For my part, extremely caffeinated sustenance.
If you zoom in and read the writing on those cups, you'll notice a curious thing. The one on the left is mine. The one on the right is Squirrel's.
That's right. One of these cups has supposedly been made in the UK! This is very perplexing. Not least because the default assumption is that things like this are made in China, to be honest. But consider - if so, how did it get here? Does a factory in the UK churn out paper cups specially to be sent to China, where they can definitely be produced at a lower cost? If so, why are only some of the cups made in the UK? Is China somehow restricted to making only shorter cups, perhaps because they only have small cup-making machines? Do the staff carry out secret and extremely swift research, carefully matching customers to a country-of-origin cup from a comprehensive catalogue of international stock secreted away in a basement, as part of an elaborate mind game?
A Walk around the Walls
The caffeine proved largely ineffective, but still, it was better than nothing and gave us a nice chance to talk. We decided to follow up by actually letting Squirrel have a look around the city; and how better to do that than a stroll around the walls?
The moat surrounding the old city centre. Actually the second old city centre, since the original city of Chang'an was devastated and a much smaller version was rebuilt. After construction in 582, Chang'an was the largest city in the world! 84km2 within the city walls. After it got steamrollered during the Ming dynasty, it was rebuilt in 1370 at a mere 12km2. On the plus side this is much more convenient to walk around.
I'm not sure about the sticks, in both senses: what they're for, and whether they're a good idea. As far as I can tell they're purely decorative, since they weren't there most of the rest of the year! As an accessory, they look okay, but not stunning. Moreover, because of the repair work being done at the time, the pavement was already greatly reduced by the construction zone (you can see a barrier to the left of the pic) so these things sticking out everywhere didn't help much. There was a lot of stopping to let people squeeze past.
The man standing on the fence is part of a bucket chain (well, a big sign chain) helping to pass these huge boards over into the construction area. This is 建, which is related to construction, so it's probably just something about building works.
As they often do, a group of enthusiasts were practicing traditional music near the city gates. I have never managed to quite get used to traditional Chinese music; it's interesting, but as with Chinese architecture and so on, I don't have enough background and exposure to appreciate it. I can sit and listen for a while, but the differences from more familiar Western music are still a little jarring. But let's be fair, there are many types of Western music that I also don't like and wouldn't sit around for! This is not an isolated phenomenon of Chinese. Hopefully one day I'll learn to properly enjoy it.
This is just a hotel that has managed to impress me with its striking appearance. I bet they're well chuffed. Popping the champagne corks, elbowing each other and going "this is it, gang, we finally cracked the big time, that bloke said on his blog that our building is quite good!
After a while, the construction work largely blocked off both the walls and the pavement. Getting tired of awkwardly making our way through (some of us more awkward than others, and also not clearly registering his surroundings) we ducked into a small park on the south-western corner of the city walls.
I just like the visual effect. There are huge numbers of these bikes around the city, from a variety of companies with no compatability whatsoever, which is deeply inconvenient for the people who want to use them. Hooray, free market?
I enjoy the look of disturbed-yet-restrained alarm on this statue's face. "Uuuuuuuuh guys I think we should leave right now okay?" as it beholds the gelatinous, fractal Thing emerging from the cellar door they carelessly left open.
Around this time I began to dimly realise we were actually in a park I'd visited years ago. My barely-functioning brain was excited but also bewildered by this.
We ducked briefly into this side passage, which leads to a number of more traditional-aesthetic restaurants.
A memory! I recalled this giant set of noodle-eating chopsticks from my first visit 10 years back, which means I've been in the park before. That time, I'm pretty sure I saw kids (and one of my fellow volunteers) sliding down a bridge.
In this corner of the park is a sad cautionary tale. Many years ago, a vengeful spirit arose near the walls of Xi'an, bringing misfortune to the local families. The spirit had a particular dislike of children, apparently despising their youth and liveliness in contrast to its own withered existence. A group of children defied their parents' warnings and stayed out late, picnicking on cold noodles and playing music; even singing songs mocking the spirit and daring it to chase them. As night fell, the spirit burst upon them and laid a dreadful curse, turning the children to nothing but bronze statues in an instant.
Although widely felt to be excessive, this regrettably fell within the scope of local bylaws and thus nothing could be done. The spirit was persuaded to take up residence in a mountain cave some distance away, where it would be left in peace, and the statues are tended to by the groundskeepers to this day.
Or possibly they are a group of bronze statues, but I mean, come on, I'm struggling to suspend my disbelief. Why would someone put a bunch of bronze statues in a park?
Nearby we found one of the common sights of the city, a group of people practicing dancing. This happens a lot - there are several groups who meet to dance on the university campus at night, by which I mean just out on the courtyard, not in a building or anything. The shopping plaza nearby has a veritable motley of competing dance classes every night. It's one of the things I enjoy about being in China. It can be noisy, and even annoying if you're trying to listen to something else; but compare it to the kind of drunken noisiness of a typical British city centre of an evening, or indeed a UK campus, and I know which I prefer.
One of the things I can't quite get over is how big everything is. China is massive, and everything in it is massive, it sometimes feels like. The serried ranks of tower blocks, marching in their legions across the landscape, are a very prominent aspect of this.
At last, to our regret, the night drew on and it was time for Squirrel to leave. I was very sorry to see her go, and felt immensely guilty for having been a barely-comprehensible, mumbling, detached observer for most of the day. She didn't blame me for it, but it was a real shame not to make better use of a very rare opportunity.
My brain was, however, very glad of the prospect of being allowed, finally, to commend itself to the infinite abyss of sleep. We bid our farewells and promised to visit when we are in Beijing (which is bound to happen sooner or later, though it's hard to plan!) and reluctantly allowed her to go. Then, my dear TT kindly led me back to the hotel, pointed me in the direction of my room, and I lurched and stumbled and generally incompetenced my way, somehow, into the welcome embrace of a quilt.
"in the cosmos there is balm as well as bitterness, and that balm is nepenthe", but it turns out a hefty tog duvet offers a pretty good substitute when nepenthe is in short supply.