Saturday, September 27, 2008

Xian: The City

(This is part of a series of posts on our trip to China last June. We'll be posting for the first several weeks of the school year.)

Finally--a chance to get back to our China backlog. We've still got one or two posts left after this one, so stay tuned!


Xian ("Western Peace") is one of the oldest cities in China. People have been living in the area since about 5000 BC (Wikipedia), and Xian, under the name Changan ("Perpetual Peace") served as the capital of the Zhou, Qin, Han, the Sui, and Tang dynasties. In the Middle Ages, Xian was best known as the eastern end of the Silk Road, which brought Middle Eastern cultural influences still prevalent in the city today.

Though modern-day Xian is frankly a bit of a dump, the long history and the rich culture earn its well-deserved billing as one of the top tourist stops in China. For history buffs, the Shaanxi Provincial History Museum is an asbolute must, if only for its incredible Silk Road collection, which features everything from Persian Zororastrian drinking horns to Byzantine jewelry to (yes) Scottish Tartan cloth.

The City Wall

Any tour of Xian begins with a tour of the City Wall, which was rebuilt by the Ming dynasty in the 14th century using the foundations of the old Tang dynasty palace, which dated from the first millenium A.D.

The wall has been completely restored in the last few years, and once again completely encircles the old city. The effect is oddly European: the low, choked, and touristy downtown flanked clusters of skyscrapers, where the real business of the city is done.

The City Wall itself, while certainly less a marvel than the Great Wall, is still worth a look--though you can probably opt for the tram tour.

Nana and I rented a tandem bicycle (for the ambiance) and nearly killed ourselves biking the whole 12km circumference of the old city in 98-degree heat. That's probably why she's tried to shoot me in the gut with a 15th-century cannon.

The Great Mosque

The Great Mosque of Xian dates from the Tang Dynasty and is one of China's biggest and most famous mosques. (Seriously--there was a scale model of it at the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur.)
It's not easy to find: you have to start at the Drum Tower (above)--which, along with the Bell Tower, represents the only useful reference point in downtown Xian--and wander back through the Muslim Quarter. Which, I might add, smells delicious.

Signs for the mosque are few and tiny, and at one point you have to walk down a dim alley no more than five feet wide.

But it's worth it: the Great Mosque encloses a stunning silent garden, with a unique architecture found almost nowhere else in the world. The style is Hui Chinese, which describes the culture of otherwise-Han-Chinese-like Chinese Muslims, and blends Middle Eastern planning and detail with Chinese architecture--for example, by substituting a pagoda for a minaret.

You can also find decorative Arabic throughout the grounds--and, of course, no representative art beyond the traditional floral arabesques.

Big Wild Goose Pagoda and Little Wild Goose Pagoda

Central Xian's two other big sites are the Wild Goose Pagodas, each located a few blocks south of the City Wall. Originally built to house Buddhist scriptures, today they're mostly used as pretty backdrops for wedding photos and viewing platforms for tourists vising town. (Locals have long since learned that you don't really want a good look at downtown Xian.)

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda is the larger, newer, and better-preserved of the two. The pagoda and its surrounding temple sit in the center of a huge, tacky tourist village, which was deserted in the blistering afternoon heat.

Thankfully, the pagoda was closed to climbers. I don't trust myself to have learned the lesson of that 12-km City Wall bike ride: when it's this hot, try your best not to move an inch.Even without having climbed the pagoda, I felt like these candles. Ick.

We stopped by the Small Wild Goose Pagoda in the evening, when the weather was much better for a quick climb.
I'd show you the photos from the top, but they consisted mostly of smog and office blocks. I guess the whole pagoda thing was cooler when they were still the biggest show in town.

On the Relative Merits of Xenophobia

At least we don't have to worry about drinking any Chinese milk here in the Korea. Of course, we can't get real cheese, unsweetened potato chips, or good old-fashioned American beef--but at least the Korean market's violent fear of foreign foodstuffs has gotten something right: don't import anything edible from China. (Though I can say from experience that appliances, by deceptively German-sounding Haier, are quite alright.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Pierogies . . . in KOREA!

Nana and I were watching the Steelers squeak past the Browns last Monday morning (that's last Sunday night, for you folks back home) when the NBC broadcast, coming back from commercial break, ran a clip of some portly Clevelander frying pierogies. I nearly cried: pierogies are the food of my people--not the Poles or the Ukrainians, but the Yinzers, the overwhelmingly Eastern-European denizens of my beloved Pittsburgh. Along with kielbasa, Primanti's sandwiches, and vinegar slaw, nothing tastes quite so much like home as a pierogi. I mean, every home game, the Pittsburgh Pirates pay four poor souls to run a race in giant pierogi suits. (I wish I were kidding.) Pierogies are as Pittsburgh as black and gold.

Anyway: watching the butter glistening on that Clevelander's pierogies touched off a massive craving, which at first we dismissed like all our other TV cravings--namely, by shrugging off the fact that we can't get it in Korea and moving along with out lives. But the craving persisted, until Nana made a stunning realization: we could, in fact, buy flour in Korea, which means that--stay with me here--we could make the pierogies ourselves.

So, yes, as of last weekend, you can get pierogies in Korea, as long as you know the rigth people (i.e., Nana, who ended up doing pretty much all of the work). It was no small task--in the Burgh, pierogies are usually made assembly style for church fundraisers--but as far as the taste goes, it was a huge success. So much so, in fact, that we're hosting a pierogi party this weekend. Thus we continue to spread the faith around the world.