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Day 112 – This Is Xian, This is China

June 23, 2010

Dateline: Xian, China – Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Today Lindsey, Beatrice, Seth, and I spent the morning biking around the old Xian city wall. Xian used to be the capital, home of the country’s first emperor. He commissioned construction of the wall which is about 50 feet tall and is up to about 40 feet wide in spots. It’s about 2 kilometers along each side. There is also almost no shade.

We rented bicycles at the south gate and rode on the wall counterclockwise around the city. The wall has been here for thousands of years, relatively unchanged. The wall gives this city of 4.2 million people a link to the past. The western gate was the start of the famous Silk Road, the overland trade route from China to Europe and frequented by fellows like Marco Polo. Parks line the south and west sides of the wall. You can look down on old men doing tai chi and women walking around a circle of stones. I suspect the stones are there to stimulate their feet and improve their health. Men use bullwhips to snap at large wooden tops and keep them spinning.

At the same time, it’s clear that Xian is changing. Look across the moat and you can see cranes lifting beams to the tops of growing skyscrapers. Look down into the inner city and you’ll find rubble from demolished neighborhoods. These empty lots will no doubt be developed into profitable buildings. Steel and concrete are replacing stone rubble. The sound of workers pounding on metal reverberates up off the wall.

In ten years, all the old neighborhoods may be gone. The alley markets might be pushed to the outskirts of town (whoops, I meant “city of 4.2 million people”). The Muslim Quarter may be sanitized and Disney-fied, more like the touristy hutongs around Beijing’s Houhai Lake. Who knows. Maybe even the hostel I stayed at will disappear to make way for further development.

Biking in the heat, along the northern and western parts of the wall, we got glimpses of the new Xian. The train station bustled with travelers, just outside the northern edge. Just inside one of the northern entrances to the inner city, McDonalds and KFC loomed over a busy intersection.

As Beatrice and Lindsey like to say: “TIC. This is China.” Usually it’s applied to crazy things like people spitting indoors or a parent holding a baby over a planter so it can poop out of the giant slit in its pants. To me, it also applies to the changing face of the country. Ten years from now, I won’t recognize the place. The city will be here (probably), but everything around it will be different. TIC.

One that that may not be different, however, is the wacky local government. I experienced this in Beijing when the local authorities shut down the outdoor seating on Ghost Street even though it’s no secret that people have been eating outside there for years. Guess someone forgot to pay someone else off. I also witnessed police run away from a bar fight. Law enforcement has a different connotation here.

Got another taste of the fun local police once again. I packed up my stuff from the hostel, bid my travel companions goodbye, and walked out to grab a taxi. I walked in the heat to no avail. I finally settled in on an area in front of a shopping center with a bus stop and a taxi drop off curb cut. I figured I’d either get on the 603 or find a cab. I talked to five cabs dropping off passengers and each one refused to take me to the train station. Worried that I’d miss my train (again) I took up a motorbike driver’s offer for a ride. The ten rmb price (signaled by him crossing his index fingers) was fair.

I agreed and started to get on the back of his bike when out of nowhere a random guy pulled the keys out of the bike’s ignition. At the same time, a cop car pulled up. The motorbike driver shrugged at me and proceeded to get arrested by the police, presumably for playing taxi without a license.

The plainclothes cop who pulled the keys yelled at me and pointed at the taxi curb cut. Apparently, I should have caught a cab. Getting in the spirit of China, I yelled at the cop asking him how I was supposed to use a cab if none of them would take me to the train station. I pointed at my watch. The guy laughed at me and spit. I gave him the stink eye, then yelled at him some more. When else can I yell at a cop? China can be fun like that some times.

I walked back to the cab curb cut. The cop car pulled away with the poor motorbike driver cuffed in the back. The plainclothes cop wheeled away the motorbike for impound.

As the cops disappeared, another motorbike driver approached me and asked if I needed a ride. He asked for twenty, I got him down to fifteen. I couldn’t get him to ten because he’d just seen another guy get popped. Also, I couldn’t waste time because I needed to get to a train.

With that, I hopped on the bike with my giant bag on my back. We rode past the cop car with the arrested dude inside. No one stopped us. TIC.

As we made our way to the train station, I learned why none of the cabs wanted to take me. It was around 4:00 p.m. and traffic was terrible. Schools were letting out. Cars crowded the road. Even with the motorbike dodging in and out of trapped cars and taxis it took us 15 minutes to travel 2.5 km.

Made the train, though. Plenty of time to buy a bowl of instant noodles and some juice for my dinner. Got on board with a bunch of Chinese people wearing Expo 2010 white polos and alternated between sleeping, eating, reading, and sleeping.

Tomorrow, Shanghai, China’s most Westernized city–so long as you don’t count Hong Kong or Taipei.

GALLERY: Click through to today’s gallery to see more pictures of Xian’s city wall, Mervyn squinting in the heat of the noonday sun reflected off miles of reflective stone, and pictures of people on bikes.

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