Monday, March 1, 2010

Day 3: Cutting Through the Smog on a Bicycle Built for Two

The third day of our Xiannese (that's not a real word) adventure began with uncertainty. The previous night before bed Trevor and I discussed what we would do, and decided it would be Big Wild Goose Pagoda in the morning, lunch, and then probably a bike ride on the great city wall in the afternoon. At this point, we'd hit the Warriors, the biggest attraction, and now had some freedom to play around a bit.

This morning I was not as hung over as the previous and after our healthy breakfast of oranges and bananas we took a bus south, outside the downtown city wall to see the pagoda. As the title of this post might suggest, it was smoggy that day. Damn smoggy. I note this especially on this day because we were sight seeing, and in particular things that were tall and extended into the sky. I was afraid the smog would somewhat ruin our view and our pictures, and although I can't say our pictures were ruined, they could have been nicer. But the truth is, depending on where you are in China, it's pretty smoggy everyday, especially in the big cities, and especially in Henan. Pollution runs rampant in this country, and it boasts the most polluted city on the planet according to Time magazine, called Linfen, which isn't very far from where I live by the way. Basically, having a clear day completely free of clouds or smog tends to be pretty rare. This is one reason why I am not too keen on staying in this country for the long hall. Just try and blame me.

Regarding the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. However, I did have a vision in my head, something like a lone tower standing on the horizon, cutting through the faint fog.

I must report that the real pagoda is not entirely this romantic, though it and the temples around it were some of the most beautiful and ornate things I saw my entire trip. When we got off the bus, we had a bit of a walk ahead of us, straight through this country's newfound love of capitalist opportunity in the form of what could be called something like a touristy county fair, complete with small rides for children and games to win big stuffed animals. Simultaneously one of the pros and cons of the tourist industry. Central to this fair is a great water fountain, which we also passed, where I understand that their is a water-laser show sometimes at night, though unfortunately we missed such show during this visit.

After weeding our way through the countless stands to buy snacks and souvenirs, we smirked our way into the pagoda's entrance by passing ourselves off as students with our old college IDs and getting a nice discount. Inside, the pagoda was something like it had been in my vision: a loan tower, rising through the smog, its splendor unrivaled by any nearby modern high rises in view. To give credit where credit is due, I should thank the city of Xi'an for not building around the tower and ruining its picture-perfect location.

And the tower itself was not the sole focus of the site, but part of a quad of temple shrines, each depicting with ornate wood work and golden statues the life journeys of a particular Chinese monk, Xuanzang, who traveled to India and returned with Buddhist teachings.

On a tangential note, it made me want to learn more about the history of Buddhism in China. Because Buddhism did start in India and spread to China, it must have been individuals like Xuanzang who spread Buddhism through this cultural exchange. This may not seem so poignant in itself, but that the two great civilizations of China and India have been in such close proximity for thousands of years, yet seem to have exchanged ideas so little, is fascinating. Obviously they exchanged some, as Buddhism in China and the Far East is evidence of, but seemingly not much, though I certainly could be wrong. And I believe this inquiry is also topical, as China and India today see each other as such fierce competitors. Then again, I suppose the fact that they are separated by the Himalayas could explain everything really, especially the mutual antipathy. That's a joke.

Anyway, Trevor and I delved our minds deep into the Buddhist tradition by observing the small temple shrines around the foot of the pagoda, but when faced with the possibility of climbing the whole 7 stories or so to the top, we decided it wasn't worth the extra money it cost. So we took a few more pictures, hit the can, and then left to find a bus back downtown.

We got off such bus around the South Gate of the great city perimeter wall, and found a nice, local Chinese joint for some of that delicious Xiannese BBQ. It wasn't as good as Glasses', but it refueled us for the next activity: riding bikes around the entire city wall.

Per the advice given to me by my English friend, the south gate was the place to enter the wall. At first such entrance appeared to be free of charge, but then we quickly encountered someone working the booth, and found that just getting on the wall would cost 40 Kuai each. Once on top of the wall we walked about 500 meters before we found a place to rent bikes. The price was pretty reasonable, and gave us 100 minutes with the bikes. I recalled reading that it would take about 90 minutes to ride around the whole city wall, so we set off with haste. Note to reader: although the title of this post implies Trevor and I were on a two-seater bike, we were not. We each had our own, although we did see a two-seater for rent and toyed with the idea of getting it. Well, maybe next time.

What followed was a truly fun travel experience, the kind of which I'll never forget. Trevor and I just made our way around the entire wall, chatting and pointing out various landmarks, and stopping to take a pictures. One really fun feature of the wall is that it was not entirely flat, but periodically has steep ramps that must be climbed vigorously on the way up and send the rider flying along with the help of gravity on the way down. Trevor and I reminisced about it later, and he told me it was one of his favorite travel experiences.

That night, we went to our hostel's sister hostel, which is bigger and bolder than our own, and still quaint, yet not as peaceful. Next door below it was one of the trendiest bars in Xi'an, frequented by locals and ex-pats alike. We met Nolan there and after stepping in realized it was clearly the place to be: packed full of people and tasteful music, and of course, it had all those esoteric decorations and leather-bound furniture essential to a trendy bar catering to westerners in China (I found similar establishments in Beijing and Shenzhen). I also saw Jia Jia again, although she was next door working in the hostel, running the night shift. I did some more harmless flirting with her, and me, Trevor, and Nolan even brought her back some food when we got a late night snack. It was a good evening, although I was pretty pissed off when the pour I got on my order of Red Label was hardly even a shot's worth. Nolan, faced with the same dilemma, went on an unsuccessful trip back to the bartender to see if he could get us a few more swallows of whiskey. He came back with the simple answer of "Sorry boys, welcome to China."

Walking home with Trevor that night, he said to me that him and Nolan had talked about me when I got up, and they agreed I would come around and decide to stay in China for the long term. With a bit of attitude granted by alcohol's consumption, I was I got a bit defensive and told Trevor condescendingly that such observation was an obvious one, and that I was clearly having a blast, and that I too could see myself there longer, but certainly not in Jiaozuo. We settled on the fact that I was undecided, and the future was unwritten for both us.

To this day, I'm still pondering such things. Maybe the fun I was having in Xi'an was just general traveling fun and not so unique to China, but simply unique to backpacking. Or maybe it is truly the thrill of the East, being a foreigner here, and having nothing but novel experiences with my first go round. Nolan did say something else, and that was if you want to try some new places, go ahead and explore them. You can always come back.

I suppose only time will tell.

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