XI'AN

I arrive to Xi'an from Hua Shan in the morning. The bus stops somewhere outside the city walls, not even reported on my map. First problem is to get to the city centre. I ask someone in the street but noone speaks English, so I try with gestures. I show the city map in my Lonely Planet travel guide, my finger pointing to downtown. It seems to me that this clearly shows what's my intended destination but, as a matter of fact, it does not. A small crowd assembles and everyone has something to say. We are in a large boulevard, the only challenge is to understand in which direction I should take the local bus. After much debate most of the people lean towards a given direction - I take the bus which goes along this huge boulevard for a while, but the city walls are not yet in sight. I therefore infer (it doesn't take a rocket scientist, you may well argue) that I am going in the wrong direction - I get off, get on the bus going in the opposite direction, passing by the place where I had taken the first bus, and after 300 metres I finally go through the city walls:

This confirms a suspicion which I had already had in another occasion when I was given wrong directions: if a Chinese hasn't understood what you are asking, he's unlikely to tell you he/she hasn't understood, he'll try instead to give you an answer anyway, trying to help you. Even though this comes from good intentions, the outcome is not good: if someone says he does not know, I can ask one of the other 1.299.999.999 Chinese, but if I am given wrong directions then, by the time I figure it out, it's too late.

It rains and it is cold. The weather has changed since Pingyao and the sun and the warm weather of Beijing seem to be 3 months away.

The first night in Xi'an I eye-witness a surrealistic event: I am walking on the pavement when I see, metres ahead of me, a guy who, if I had to tell from the way he is walking, looks drunk to me. While I decide how to overtake him without risks, he runs across a girl. The drunk man puts his hand on her bottom, she turns instantly and delivers him a kick in his shins that would have left an elephant limping. Then both go on as if nothing happened, without saying a single word! Everything was so quick and 'well-done' that, for a moment, I thought it were a local greeting or exchange of courtesies. In Italy this would have started a charge for sexual harassment which would have come to an end after years - but it's a well-known fact that in China the Justice is faster .

In the hostel I meet two Chinese girls (Daisy and another) who are studying Languages at the Beijing university. I have the great chance to speak with them - they speak English well, of course, and Daisy also speaks Spanish, not so useful unfortunately because I don't know it - and to learn many interesting things about their country. They are very very kind and they help me. I also ask them about something that I had noticed during my travel: Chinese seem to stand noise much more than us. For instance, they can sleep in the metro, they live in very noisy towns without this apparently affecting them, they do not bother if a truck rings the horn to them, and so on. Daisy says to me: "That's true, being able to stay focused on something while in a hostile environment is an integral part of our upbringing/education. Chairman Mao, for instance, used to think at the vegetable market, which is the most noisy environment you could imagine in China". I was on the verge of shooting back "Ah well, this might explain everything" but, don't ask me how, I could refrain.

Opposite the hostel, behind a wall, there is a school. It's Sunday and the school is open. This catches my attention, so I ask to my new Chinese friends: they answer that, since they are about to have one week vacation starting on October 1, the school is open on Sunday, September 30. It comes to my mind that Russians have a similar mechanism, but to us it seems strange. In any case I find it a good idea.
»So, vacation: in China there are 3 weeks of vacation every year. The first happens at the Chinese New Year (the exact date depends on the moons and only Confucius knows exactly when it is[1], I can only say it is sometime around February), the second is the week of May 1 (remember, this country claims to be Communist, so this date can't be overlooked), the third is the week of October 1, the anniversary of the birth, in 1949, of the People Republic of China. They are called "Golden Week" and I can understand that they are, indeed, golden for Chinese people, who can at last enjoy a well-deserved rest. For foreign tourists, however, they are black weeks: imagine 1.3 BILLIONS people in vacation ALL TOGETHER. I had been warned by my travel books and by people on what that means, nonetheless I underestimated the phenomenon because, when I experienced it, it was a real shock.

Everything is a challenge: to get on a bus, to get off that same bus (assuming, of course, that you managed to get on), to visit a temple, a pagoda, the city walls, to walk in the gardens etc. The upside is that you have the chance to see Chinese families in vacation.
»You can't help notice that all the couples have one child, in compliance with the one-child policy (only minorities are not subject to this policy). I have been told about the problems that this policy creates: the parents direct all their expectations to their only child, who feels the pressure to perform well at school; good performance at school is, unlike in Italy, a prerequisite for a successful career. However, in light of the huge overpopulation in China, maybe this policy was the only possible remedy? It's difficult to speak about such a sensitive topic, I just remark the big influence of this policy on nowadays China.

I can see huge contrasts, like in other Chinese towns. For instance, in the means of transport:

On October 1 I somehow manage to move through the crowd and visit the Da'Cien temple, containing the Big Goose Pagoda:

Its beautiful courtyard hosts nice pieces of art:

among which, as you will have noticed, dragons are notably present .

In the garden I notice a monk attending to a very common daily activity:

Inside one of the temples in the complex I meet a bizarre Englishman with a private guide, a Chinese girl. He is probably an archaeologist: he is angry with his guide because, he claims, in the surroundings of Xi'an there is a very important archaeological site which the Chinese authorities are hiding, so as to keep foreign people away. For this reason, he says, it is not reported on maps. The poor girl tries and persuade him that there is no conspiracy and she even mentions the name of this site. The Englishman goes on strenuously with his claims. Since he does not have a map, he gets near me, the only non-Chinese who happened to be nearby, and asks me to show him the map in my Lonely Planet guide. He shows it to the girl who, impassible, indicates him the site, well-written on the map, which the whole of China had supposedly agreed to hide from him. The Englishman looks at it again and again, thanks me while returning me the map and goes away with his guide, still reiterating to her that the Chinese Government is not granting him the freedom to visit some places. Go figure!

Among the many archaeological sites in the surroundings of Xi'an[2], the Terracotta Army is no doubt the most famous. My visit is well-worth it:

I learn that it was discovered by chance, in 1974, by a peasant digging a well in search of water. He made, instead, the most important archaeological discovery of the 20th century. I don't know how he has been rewarded for that; I hope something more than the canonical slap on the shoulder, but I don't count on it.

This is my opinion on the Terracotta Army: it is amazing, but it differs from many other great wonders of the past for an important reason: one terracotta warrior, in itself, is not a big deal, whereas 6000 of them (the Terracotta Army) are considered a wonder. Fair enough but wait: 6000 warriors are 6000 times one warrior! In short, unlike the Coliseum in Rome, the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Colossus of Rhodes and others, the Terracotta Army did not pose, in my opinion, specific technological challenges and therefore, by itself, it is not an indication of a developed society (China in 220 AC was, indeed, a developed society, but this is another matter). One hypothesis is that 700.000 people were assigned to the job (Chinese must have been a lot at that time too), so it could just be that groups of around one hundred people took care of a single statue (which might explain why no two of them are alike). The expression on the face of the warriors is penetrating, it says a lot about the extraordinary skills of their craftsmen:

The Terracotta Army museum was created in-situ: the 3 pits where visitors can see the Army are those where it has been found and where, nowadays, archaeologists continue to dig daily.

Xi'an hosts one of the largest muslim communities in China. The muslim quarter is colorful and well-lit in the night, which makes it suitable for a night visit of its alleys with shops and open-air restaurants:

Here, for the third time[3] since I am in China, I have such a conversation with a Chinese, while speaking about money:

- How much is your currency, compared to the Yuan?
- Well, at the moment one Euro is about 10 Yuan
- I see, this means you are 10 times richer than we.

It's as simple as that, isn't it? I'd be tempted to answer: by the same logic, when the Lira was the Italian currency, were we 200 times[4] poorer than you???

  1. ^Knowledge of the Chinese calendar is needed to determine the date. Here you find the details.
  2. ^Xi'an had been the capital of China for 4000 years and its surroundings are replete with archaeological sites: tombs of emperors, springs, neolithic villages and much more.
  3. ^It had previously happened in Tunxi and Beijing.
  4. ^The Italian Lira (₤) was the currency of Italy until 2002, when the Euro (€) was introduced. The exchange rate is 1 € = 1936.27 ₤