My First Two Days in the Middle Kingdom

(18 June, 2009 – Xian, China)

I am writing from Xian, one of the four great ancient capitals of China.  The past two days have been pretty tiring- I arrived into Beijing day before yesterday, late at night, and it was too late and foggy to see or do anything (I was also tired after a long flight from San Francisco).  The flight and layover at Tokyo were not memorable, except for the airport food, which was much better than I was used to from previous trips.  I had noodles and some fish and vegetable dish, with flan and Haagen Dasz.  Will met me at the airport (it is quite fortunate that we are traveling together, especially because he knows his way around already and speaks some Chinese).  The mattress at the hotel that night was pretty hard, but I slept surprisingly well.

I saw a lot of Beijing yesterday, starting with the Temple of Heaven and the Lama Temple.  The Temple of Heaven consisted of the temple and a huge surrounding park.  The most interesting part was actually watching lots of old people doing Tai Chi and other exercises there.  The Lama Temple (a Tibetan Buddhist temple) was pretty incredible, with an enourmous (18 meters high) Buddha made of sandalwood (which one a Guinness World record for its size) and so much rich detail in every building.  A few believers were praying and making offerings with incense.  Then Will and I walked down to “ghost street” and stopped by a place for lunch.  The “ghost street” must look pretty cool at night, with all those hanging spherical red lamps.  After lunch we wandered through Beijing University and some of Haidian district, and entered some of the large “computer malls”: you can find practically anything computer-related there, there were floors and floors full of technology.  Then we went further East to the Sanlitun Village where a lot of expats live.  Apparently it is a pretty self-sufficient area, so it is possible for someone to live there without ever venturing out into the rest of Beijing.  I then bought myself a BBC documentary, “Wild China”- I am looking forward to watching it.

The sleeper train to Xian was surprisingly comfortable, the best train I’ve been in so far (my first sleeper train actually).  I think this is a much better way of traveling than by plane, and so I am thinking of incorporating it into my future travels in Asia.  I am quite pleased by the hostel, it is pretty much what I expected (although I did not expect them to meet us at the train station!)  They know who most of their customers are (young western travelers), and so they also gave us tickets for free beer.

After settling in, we spent the morning wandering around the Muslim district (Xian has a relatively large Muslim population)- with very charming winding streets full of salespeople trying to grab your attention.  The Great Mosque of Xian (one of the oldest Mosques in China) was also in this area- I was quite impressed with the architecture and layout, and so went berserk with the camera again.  Then we met Bridget for a very long lunch at a barbecue place, and wandered around Xian for a while.  We finished the day by going to the Forest of Stone Tablets, a museum that contains a great many tablets of calligraphy that are several hundred years old.  The Book of Odes (Shi Jing), writings of Confucius,  Mencius, and many others is contained in them.  Our trip was cut short by the rain – Xian is hot, humid and rainy during the summer), and so we finished the day over our free beer back at the hostel.

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