Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The homeland of Qin; and leaving China

Tianshui is four hours by bus from Lanzhou, an easy trip especially if you are well set up with bottled drinks, biscuits, raisins, and yak jerky. I went to the wrong bus station at first, Lanzhou (by virtue of its geography) having several bus stations to save the buses contributing to the midtown traffic jams; but the right one was right around the corner and indeed I didn’t even have to walk the whole way, finding as I did a large purple bus rounding up passengers for Tianshui on the way. Unfortunately I’d forgotten that these kinds of semiofficial buses are less likely to leave on schedule, but the result of the delay was a much-needed toilet break an hour later, before we got on the highway, so it all worked out. Of Chinese bus station toilets themselves, the less said the better, though there is a kind of strange locker room camaraderie to them if you can get past the flies.

Tianshui is a small city of about 3.5 million people in southeastern Gansu. I thought of it as a bit of a backwater, since it is not usually a tourist destination and is not especially developed or cosmopolitan. It gives the feeling of a small and sleepy place, but it is apparently the second largest city in Gansu after Lanzhou. I had just described it as “a small city of a couple hundred thousand” but remembered my American tendency to underestimate the population of Chinese towns and looked it up. 3.5 million surprises me, but the figure does include the surrounding county. Some statistics note that around 75% of that population is “agricultural population,” suggesting they live outside of town, so maybe my sense of the city’s population wasn’t so radically wrong after all (one-quarter of 3.5 million is 875,000). That’s the lesson of China’s population problems, though, where a county of three million can be an underpopulated backwater. It’s technically about halfway between Lanzhou and Xi’an (about 330 km in either direction), though as I found out later this doesn’t make the trips equivalent in duration.

I chose my hotel poorly, as it turned out, but at least it was cheap, centrally located, and the sheets and towels were spotless, by contrast with the floors and walls. Just fine for one night. It was also across the street from a mosque with two halal restaurants in the entry courtyard, so I was well set up for food. I immediately found a driver to take me out to the cave temples of Maijishan, rather than waiting for the bus, since it was later than I had planned. Maijishan (“Haystack Mountain”) is a rocky promontory in the hilly country south of Tianshui, carved with some of the least accessible cave temples in China:


It was worth seeing, but I went as a tourist and most of the caves are not directly accessible in that case (they’re closed and locked and you can just peek through the grating). So I didn’t get much other than a good sense of the site and its geographical location, a sense of place, as it were: which is important for cave temple sites nonetheless. And after five hours on a bus, the up and down stairs was good for me.

I left Tianshui early the next morning on a bus for Xi’an. Tianshui is the ancient populated center of the homeland of the Qin people, who moved out of southeastern Gansu to conquer the Warring States in the third century BCE. The First Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, he of the terra-cotta warriors, was first prince and then king of Qin before he invented the role of emperor and gave himself the title (“huangdi,” which he coined). The tombs of the predynastic Qin are scattered around eastern Gansu. Other traditions that became fundamentally Chinese seem to have been born here too: Tianshui is the site of a temple dedicated to Fu Xi, one of the snake-tailed creator deities (Nu Wa is his consort and, in many stories, the prime mover: Han art shows them twined together, holding architect’s tools), who was evidently a local boy. But being in Tianshui, and the country around Tianshui, reminds you that the Qin were really strangers to the fertile plains of the loess plateau. The land around the settled areas is mountainous and thickly forested, not so dry as central or western Gansu, but still less well watered than the Central Plains. The road east from Tianshui leads through a series of harrowing river gorges, over (and sometimes under) mountain ridges and rocky valleys, with little villages clinging to the hillsides here and there. It’s good orchard country, with apples and pears widely grown, and at one point an otherwise tedious traffic jam was enlivened by the purchase of crisp, juicy peaches from the side of the road, a local pale-green variety that always look underripe to me, but which tasted delicious. The land was a little European-looking, actually, with the dry-cultivated fields and agricultural valleys, with little temple-crowned walled settlements clustered on the defensible upland ridgetops. Few fortified towns survive in the Central Plains area, and none whose fortifications are so easily understandable (by the lay of the land). It had a post-medieval feeling, like the setting to a historical novel.

The bus ride from Tianshui to Xi’an, ancient capital of so many dynasties, replicates more or less the journey taken by the Qin from their homeland to imperial conquest in the upper Yellow River basin. At 330 km, it should have taken about four hours on the highway, except that the highway wasn’t finished yet - we saw the elevated double roadway under construction from many different vantage points on our winding, rocky journey. Instead, we took the regular road, potholed, dusty, goat- and donkey-ridden, and twisting torturously through the dry valleys. It was a wonderful leisurely trip for anyone who loves landscape and scenery, as I do, and I had enough juice in the iPod for the whole trip; but it did take ten hours, going downhill almost all the way, including two hourlong traffic jams, one in the mountains and one in downtown Baoji. I knew we were in Shaanxi when we descended out of the mountains onto a plain marked by little agricultural villages scattered along the flat land. I’d forgotten how heavily Christian southern Shaanxi is; many of the villages along the roadside had their own Christian churches, in either sort-of-Gothic or pseudo-Baroque styles, rising above the low farmhouses. When I began to see the gigantic tumuli of the Han imperial tombs clustered to the north of the road, I knew we were almost there.

The Han imperial tombs are built to the north of the imperial city, in what is now the town of Xianyang (incidentally also the site of the Xi’an airport). This is standard fengshui for tomb-building: the important tombs are always sited on high ground “behind” (to the north of) the city. But in the case of Xi’an it means that the Wei river runs between the city and the necropolis. To travel to the tombs meant crossing the Wei river, and so crossing the Wei river itself became a kind of metaphor for death or at least for the journey to the afterlife. This can sometimes make a trip to the Xi'an airport unnecessarily metaphysical. We crossed the Wei river in reverse, so to speak, from the city of the dead to the city of the living, and pulled into the long-distance bus station, under the city walls of Xi’an.

Arriving in Xi’an meant I was almost done with my travels. Arriving in Xi’an meant I was back in China proper, back to a series of relatively urban destinations, back to a last few stops where all I had to do was spend some time in some new museums. I was more worn down by travel and seven weeks of stomach upset than I realized: after being thwarted by some garden-variety bureaucracy one time too many at the Xi’an Municipal Museum, I nearly lost it entirely and had to go have an ice cream and get a grip, thankfully anonymously. Fortunately, it was in Xi’an that I discovered the Jinjiang Hotel chain, which I would absolutely recommend to anyone traveling in China these days. I stayed in another one, subsequently, in Taiyuan, and had no regrets.

It used to take twelve to fourteen hours to get to Beijing from Taiyuan by train, because you had to travel either south via Luoyang and Zhengzhou, or north via Datong and the Inner Mongolian border. Now that they’ve finished building an impressive set of tunnels *through* the Taihang range, a fundamental rule of transport in north China has been altered once and for all, and you can get to Beijing from Taiyuan in three hours on a modern electric high-speed train. Taiyuan to Shijiazhuang is even faster. I arrived back in Beijing exhausted and half-sick, and my plans for last-minute tourist shopping were in disarray; but I was determined at least to keep my dinner date with an old friend from college, W, now teaching in a university in Beijing, so I took a nap and a shower and set out.

He had suggested a restaurant called The Vineyard, which turned out to be a European restaurant, slanting Italian, in the Yonghegong neighborhood. It was only a few subway stops away from where I was staying in Dengshikou, and I emerged from the new subway station into the oblique golden light of a northern summer evening. The swallows of Beijing were looping crazily around the red-and-gold eaves of the Yonghegong temple. The restaurant was in a hutong (alley) where residents were puttering around, old grannies bringing out old wooden stools to sit in doorways and potbellied uncles hanging their pet birds in the trees to sing. A little boy, his head shaved except for a patch above his forehead, scooted his blue plastic horse-on-wheels over the uneven asphalt, absently munching on a popsicle. It was an evening designed by the world to remind me of why I’ve loved living in China, and especially in Beijing, over the years.

The dinner was an odd meal with which to end a Beijing sojourn: an olive platter, arugula pizza, and pinot gris. It was delicious, however, and so very sweet to catch up with an old friend. It confirmed my sense of what getting older is like: we grow, if anything, more like ourselves, as old insecurities peel away and we settle into our own skins. I hadn’t seen W in seventeen years, but he was still himself; just at a different place along the road (and married to a delightful wife, herself a legal scholar of note). I once asked my friend Carter-san, who’s known me since about 1990, what I was like as a college student. “You were just as geeky as you are now,” she said judiciously, “but you didn’t realize you were allowed to enjoy it.” The things I come to realize about myself now are often things that have been true all along, if only I’d allowed myself to admit it. One of the things I’ve learned from Rex, who is one of the few people to challenge me to ask myself what I really want and what I really like, is how rarely I’ve asked that question of myself, preferring in general the much safer (from a moral point of view) question of what I *should* want. It’s still a hard one to answer, but I think that the answers to the question are going to be important, and it may be my oldest friends who help me to recognize what has been essential in me all along.

My real culinary farewell to Beijing took place in the cool of the following morning, when I found a place near the hotel to have youtiao (fried dough, or as Rex put it, “morning bread”) and soy milk for breakfast: the quintessential Beijing breakfast, and then off to the airport to take off for home.

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