After rushing Datong and Pingyao over previous few days we decided to take a 9 hour hard seat ride to Xi’an, one of China’s most historical and culturally diverse cities. (or at least it used to be). Xi’an used to be a major hub on the Silk Road. According to my Lonely Planet book, Xi’an once expanded be around 83 sq km and had influences in buildings, cultures from as far away as Persia, and really alien religion like Zoroastrianism, Islam, Judaism, and Manichaeism. (Which I didn’t even know was a thing.) All of this is pretty cray considering how much bigger the world would have seemed then.
But before we get to what a cool time we had in Xi’an, I want to bring up something about riding trains. (I know I’ve brought it up before but trains were the main mode of transportation for this trip. All time considered, I think we spent 90+ hours on trains. So forgive me if I’ve got a few things to say about them.) The previous few trips from Beijing >Datong & Datong >Pingyao, we had taken over night sleeper trains which were actually kind of nice once you get past the sleeping exposed thing. We decided from Pingyao to Xi’an we’d ride on a just a regular hard seat with Han Q. Public.
So we’ve been stared at and gawked at plenty by this time living in China as a laowai. No big deal, right? Well, imagine having captive audience for 9 hours in close quarters. It gets a little hard to just stare back at people or pretend not to notice until it goes away. After a few hours and chapters into our books, this became much less of a source of anxiety and more a source of …well, kind of a mix between entertainment, worry and disbelief. Mostly because this man decided to nest under our seat.
This may seem really crazy. And yeah, it probably is, but after talking to my students about it they told me that it’s probably because many people take “Standing Tickets” because they can’t afford or don’t want to pay for a seat. It’s a pretty common thing on Chinese trains for the aisles to be jam packed with people as well as the seats.
After being seriously tired of close quarters with people, we were ecstatic to finally arrive in Xi’an. We met up with our Couchsurfing host in the middle of the night and felt really bad about waking him up. Our host’s name was Kai. Kai’s a really interesting fella. One, because his Couchsurfing profile reads seems to be really serious. In his profile, he’s very pro-communist, very pro-China and oh yeah. He’s a cop. Two, after meeting him all of this is rendered moot because he has a really funny sense of humor. He says he’s a cop because he couldn’t pass the test to be a geography teacher. (He’s actually a crime scene investigator after being a beat cop and a prison guard. After hearing his stories about Chinese prisons, I definitely don’t want to go.) He says he’s a card carrying communist (he showed us the card) because he has to be to be a cop. In his words, “Why do we base our government on a book? Didn’t they see how it worked out in Europe? Maybe the book was just a joke and we took it seriously!” Aside from all that, Kai loves hotpot like most other Chinese people and has mad guanxi at a local place. So he took us there was another Couchsurfer that was staying around his place named Dorothy who teaches in Gansu province.
Anyhow, enough about Kai, let’s talk more about food. Remember how I mentioned Xi’an was culturally diverse? Kai lived about a 5 minute walk from the Muslim quarter. They had beautiful mosques, for once not just temples! We wandered around this part of the city for a while and discovered they have bread! Almost like real bread! This part of town kicked my whole Chinese food experience up about 10 notches.
We discovered Hui food. The Hui people are one of the recognized ethnic minorities in China. This food doesn’t taste anything like the food we had experienced in China up to this point. The real key indicators that you’re in a restaurant of the Hui variety is the lack of pork on the menu, the little white hats, and most importantly a person swinging, rolling and flying some dough into the most delicious and fresh noodles I’ve ever had. It’s some serious pastamancy, dude. The only part that’s a bummer is that the noodles come out as really long strips of lava burning mouth death. Luckily, they’re also the most slippery and difficult thing to eat with chopsticks as well. You and the rest of your noodlin’ party will look like heathens in comparison to Western standards because it’s totally okay to shovel as many mile long strands of noodles as you can into your mouth and bite off the excess while the sauce flies everywhere. But seriously, what’s eating like a prude with a fork ever done for anyone? My shirts are never clean after a meal anyway.
The city was actually really nice with all its walls, but we only scheduled 2 days to stick around. So we were off to the Terra-Cotta Warriors ASAP!