Sunday, April 1, 2012

Into the Labyrinth: Xi'an's Muslim Quarter

Let me take you to Xi’an’s Muslim quarter.  This has been one of our favorite afternoon and evening destinations for our stay here in Xi’an.  Hop on a 608, find a seat or squeeze in among the sardines and enjoy the ride. 

The Muslim quarter lies in the shadow of the Drum Tower and extends over a 2 square miles area of veritable labyrinths.  Muslims have been here since the middle of the 8th century, a direct result of the Silk Road.

From the Drum Tower, let’s turn right down a food-lined street.  Smell the fragrant blend of roasted lamb, dates, and nuts with high notes of garlic.  Tourists from around the world wander up and down the street.  Our forays into Muslim street have brought us into contact with Germans, Australians, Indians, Spanish, and dozens of other nationalities, each chattering their unique dialect amid the blaring calls of “low prices” and “shadow puppet show” on the sidelines.

We’ll make a stop for a lamb sandwich, some sweet sesame rice, and a sweet potato cake, stuffed with sugary dates.  So far we’ve paid 5 ¥ for the lamb and 2 ¥ each for the other dishes—a total of $1.50.  Now that we’ve eaten, let’s turn down a smaller street, past the quail eggs frying on a stick to our right and the dumplings cooking to our left.

Although we have explored the winding streets of the Muslim quarter both in the daylight and at evening, we much prefer the world that bursts into neon-lit excitement after dark.  Here, as if poured through a funnel, the masses of humanity pore over silk robes, tea sets, chop sticks and every other tourist bauble imaginable.  They munch on slow roasted lamb kabobs or taste the Chinese version of peanut brittle.  The world is alive on every level: from tourists to merchants to motorbikes parting the crowds to small cages of song-birds in every-other tree.

One afternoon, after haggling over scarves and caps, we made our way down a non-descript alleyway to discover the Great Mosque, according to our sources the largest mosque in all of China.  The entrance itself appeared as non-descript as its surroundings, but since Lonely Planet and numerous internet sources assured us that it was a must-see, we shelled out our 25 ¥ apiece and entered the solemn world of Chinese Islam.

We happened to have the mosque mostly to ourselves, so we could wander slowly, pondering the age-old tongue-and-groove joists and rafters.  How many generations of devout Muslims have walked through these courtyards, heeding the call to prayer?  Around us mixed a curious blend of Chinese and Arabic—traditional Chinese script counterpointed by beautiful quotations from the Koran. 

Verses from the Koran in the mosque of Xi'an

The mosque itself little resembles its counterparts farther west, instead borrowing much of its architectural style from the Tang dynasty.  Roofs here feature the common fish scale tiling and contain ancient fire retardant features, such as the inclusion of symbolic figures to stave off the flames.  Although it is the central place of worship of over 50,000 Muslims, I felt that the surrounding buildings had all but swallowed it up.

Like a grand piano in a music room with only small doors, I wondered how this building came to fit in the labyrinth around us.  The walls, old and ornate, extended only partially up the side of newer, poorly constructed shops and dwellings.

We made our way to the prayer hall, and, then, since we were not Muslim, stood at the door, facing Mecca.  Tourists began to fill the courtyards; I could hear guides speaking German, Spanish, English and Portuguese.  I’m sure there were others as well.

Out the main gate again and into the bustling streets of Muslim quarter, we began to weave through the crowd to the Drum Tower again.  So far we have not been disappointed.  No matter the time of day, we have found a certain interesting flavor here—sights, smells and tastes. 

So, we’ll leave you here.  The bus will be by soon.  Remember, you can come back tomorrow.  I assure you, there is much more to discover.

Here is an interesting site with blogs about the Muslim Street:

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Drums at Evening


On Monday, after a day of teaching, when the smog had somewhat settled, Kelly and I walked through the main gate of the school complex to see if we could find our way downtown.  We walked one short block, serenaded by the honking horns, waited one short moment, and hopped aboard the double-decker 608.  I had traced out the 608 bus route on my little map, and it looked like the perfect way to magically transport ourselves from the high-tech district to the ancient center of Chang’an.

From the second deck of the bus, we could make out familiar sights: the Unicom tower, the Post office skyscraper, the streams of humanity.  Soon we headed north into uncharted territory, excited that we could so easily slip off to another world.

In the distance the city walls were ringed with lights.  Buildings without flashing neon will seem dull indeed after two months of the pulsating buzz of these symphonies of light.  Now we could make out the ancient walls, outlined in neon.  As we moved closer to the southern gate, we could see the dynastic structures, also painted in light.

We descended from the bus into the rush of traffic.  In front of the majestic gate, we noticed a play with hundreds of people—a tribute to the Qing dynasty?  We made our way north toward the bell tower, the center of Xi’an, then turned west down another street.  Suddenly, as if by magic, we found ourselves in the shadow of an immense gilded tower, lit up by dozens of spotlights.

This, we learned, was the drum tower.  Built in 1380, over a hundred years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, this tower served as a companion to its brother, the bell tower, during two separate dynasties.  The bell was rung to announce the dawn, the drum, to announce the fall of evening.  I find it fascinating that such impressive structures were created to declare something so obvious.

For a mere $5 apiece, we were able to climb the staircase to the first level.  Beside us stretched drums from another time, above us towered this ghost of the Qing dynasty, beyond us moved the vibrant life of downtown Xi’an.  The drum, we were told, is the oldest instrument in China.  In the very center of the drum tower is what is known to be the largest drum in the country.

In awe, we moved into the building and climbed more stairs.  We felt a special connection to this building, since we had discovered it on our own, instead of being a part of a tour group.  We walked quietly upwards.  Above us we could see the rafters, ornately painted like Matryoshka dolls.  As we ascended, we noticed signs warning us not to take photos, and the reverence of the ancient structure echoed those signs.  Here in the bowels of this tower we found a museum with antique chairs, tables and other artifacts from the Qing dynasty.  I noticed men reading from large books in the corner with a sort of reverent air, so I tread softly.

A small door let out into the busy night air, and below we could hear the honking of horns and the lifeblood of the Xi’an: people eating, talking, buying, buses continually circling, taxis, cars, bicycles, motorbikes and other wheeled vehicles.  We were standing on a small ledge, little between us and the streets below.  Both of us began to mix a pinch of acrophobia with doubt of 14th century craftsmanship.

We let the feelings wash over us, and then we descended the long stairs back into the crowd and caught to 608 back to Gaoxin Number 1.  We really need to get one of these drum towers in downtown Lexington.

Monday, March 26, 2012

A Day in the Life--Teaching in Xi'an

Our arrival to Gaoxin Number 1 consisted of a digital welcome sign, several half days of tours, a hot pot meal and a simple welcoming ceremony.  Our first weeks themselves were a veritable hot pot: the bubbling mixture of new experiences and unexpected changes.  Into the pot went buying cleaning supplies and peeling a layer of dust off from our apartment.  Dust and smog is the ever-present constant in Xi’an at this time of year.  Into the pot went the sudden discovery of aspects of the school day.  Into the pot went the gradual mental mapping of our environs.

Now that two weeks have passed, I would like to sketch out a general overview of our school day.

The view from the 11th floor on a clear day.
The Flat

Our day begins on the 11th floor.  A clear day affords a glimpse of our surroundings—a crowded street with character not too far from our living room window, immersed in a sea of apartment buildings, flanked by the towering buildings in various stages of construction.  The flat, as local English speakers refer to it, is comfortable enough: water is hot, and there is a heater/AC unit.  The living area sports a couch with a coffee table.  (Since our neighbors discovered that the coffee table doesn’t support weights heavier than a book, we use ours to display magazines.)  Although our bed is a direct descendant of early stone slabs, it includes two featherbeds, which serve as padding enough.  The shower, as we had been informed before we came, consists of a showerhead in the middle of the bathroom.  Consequently, every morning shower concludes with morning mopping.

The Food

Gaoxin Number 1 has kindly supplied us with a meal card, usable in the cafeteria (canteen) as well as in the small school store.  Liquids are not served with the meal, but we can visit the school store before or after the meal for a pear drink or plum juice.  With our meal card we have an assortment of choices.  Lunch is traditionally the largest Chinese meal, so the selection at lunch is quite extensive—rice and/or noodles with meats and vegetables cleavered into bite-sized bits, potato noodles, spring rolls, dumplings, or other delightful forms and flavors.

Eating supper in the canteen.

The Classroom

Since students remain in the same class all day long, receiving instruction from a variety of teachers, classrooms are bereft of content-centered decorations.  Most classrooms feature the red and yellow flag of China, hung above the expansive chalk-board.  This being the high-tech zone, all classrooms have computers, housed in a large metal box in the front of the room.  These are handy for PowerPoint displays, here commonly called ppts.  

When mentally sketching the model classroom, first put a slightly raised stage in the front of the classroom.  I begin by placing this stage, since Chinese methodologies are highly teacher-centered, and this is where the teacher performs.  Behind the teacher, draw the blackboard.  Make sure you dust the teacher well with chalk dust.  Next, fill the classroom with 60 desks.  Rows of desks stretch in three long columns, facing the teacher.  Then, at each desk, stuff a student.  With only two narrow aisles and small spaces, students spend much of their day cemented to their seat.  Fortunately, folded into the day are various exercise opportunities: physical education class, morning exercises and a two hour lunch break.

Team teaching with Kevin

The Students

Everywhere I’ve been I’ve noticed an inborn cohesion among students.  There is an implicit solidarity in discovering the world together and facing the same challenges together.  Certainly, there are students of every kind at Gaoxin Number 1.  Some students are highly motivated, still working, hours after the school day has finished.  Other students sleep through class.  Interestingly, the hard-working, motivated students sometimes lament their lost childhood, sacrificed to the leveling blade of the college entrance exam.

The Office

Since teachers move from class to class instead of students, we must have a place to stay between classes.  So, the Chinese custom is for teachers to have a group office.  I share my office with two biology teachers.  Neither speaks English (although one knows several English phrases), so that gives me a bit of a chance to learn some Chinese words.  I should point out the mirror and the wash basin in the corner.  Beside it sits a large thermos of hot water.  This, I must say, is quite versatile.  It serves as water for tea; it serves as water to wash the floor, and it serves as water for hand-washing.

Running with my office-mate, Tang lao shi

The Teachers

The teachers at Gaoxin Number 1 have been unfailingly kind.  They have allowed me to observe a variety of classes.  I even observed a math class.  One Chinese teacher has given me a few lessons in Chinese.  I am a slow learner, despite her claims to the contrary.  When we teach English, they turn the class over completely to us.  Regular English classes follow the book, but Spoken English gives us more creativity in lesson plans.  Thursday afternoons, Senior 1 students (equivalent to Freshmen) have elective classes, so I am teaching a beginning Spanish class—a first for this school.

The Schedule

Most teachers at Gaoxin Number 1 generally teach two 45 minute classes per day (social studies teachers being the exception).  However, with sixty students per class, teachers have their hands full with grading papers.  The extensive planning periods allow ample time for grading.  Apparently, however, the only real grades are the final exams.  Although the daily schedule begins at 8:10, students and teachers are already hard at work when I arrive at 7:30.  This is because students actually have a zero hour for morning reading.  Classes officially end at 5:35, and, according to the timetable that was given to us, are from Monday through Friday.  However, last week I learned that teachers and students are also at the school on Saturday.  This coming week, we will all be working Saturday and Sunday, since schools will be closed from Monday through Wednesday for Tomb Sweeping Day.  I wonder if this would go over very well in the US?

Of course, there is more to discover.  Every day brings something new.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A journey into the past: Shaanxi History Museum

Thursday morning dawned with rain, which, while it cleared away the smog, also cleared away our plans for visiting the drum tower and the Muslim quarter.  Perhaps it is better, since the small bills we had stockpiled for Scottish-style trading ended up being the equivalent of dimes instead of the 1 ¥ that we had assumed.  Due to the rain, Xiaolan decided to take us to the Shaanxi History Museum.

I must confess that I am a lover of fine museums, and the Shaanxi History Museum now ranks high on my list of favorite museums, along with the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry (  Likely won’t ever visit both in the same day.

Once again, we were fortunate to have been provided with an English speaking tour guide.  Her English comprehension was quite good, which allowed for question and answer sessions as well.  Often the English production is much better than comprehension.

The tiled roof of the museum and surrounding buildings is made in the classic fish shape.  Why a fish?  Often buildings’ wooden construction made them susceptible to fire, therefore the inclusion of a water motif,
(shuǐ), kept the building safe.  Perhaps that is why feng shui is so important.

Oracle bones

Early writing
Our entrance into the museum led us back thousands of years to the earliest writing in China, inscribed on oracle bones.  Soothsayers inscribed futures, perhaps like modern investment magazines, into these bones and left on record the earliest form of Chinese.  Writings were also preserved on pots and large stones.

Shaanxi province, as indicated by our guide, bears some resemblance to the archer that we had purchased the day before.  Again, I was reminded that the archer was “very lucky,” although I wondered whether his luck hinged more on being buried for two thousand years or on being discovered.

Chang'an in its glory days

This is the cradle of Chinese civilization.  The hills surrounding us have watched humans develop from simple village life to mighty cities.  Among the greatest of these cities was Chang’an, the capital of over a half a dozen dynasties, which grew to house a million people in the Tang dynasty era.  This area is also rich in gold and other resources.

Zhang Qian

Earlier, during the Han dynasty, a man named Zhang Qian made long journeys to open trade routes, which later became known as the Silk Road.  Due to the lively trade, the Silk Road eventually brought numerous cultures and customs, as well as foreigners, into Shaanxi.  As evidenced by our presence, this cultural exchange has not ended.  It is, also, due to the Silk Road that Buddhism entered China.

This video shows the Silk Road route, ending at its terminus, now the city of Xi'an.

The Silk Road, we were told by our guide, was long and arduous, a far cry from the romantic image that I had conjured from combination of the word ‘silk’ and Yo-yo Ma’s cello playing (  It was, indeed, on these long journeys that merchants broke out their musical instruments to pass the time.

As before, our tour ended sooner than we would have liked.  It is difficult to cram thousands of years of Chinese history in a half a day.

Friday, March 16, 2012

秦陵兵马俑 Qínlíng Bīngmǎyǒng Terracotta Warriors and Horses

Meals in China excite the senses, and I doubled up for breakfast—a noodle-stuffed homemade bun plus deep-fried bread crammed full of noodles beans and lotus root.  Lotus root resembles a giant pickled watercress.  We would need fortitude today, because we were going to face off an army of terracotta warriors.

Our bus ride to the terracotta warriors offered us our first full glimpse of Xi’an, and for me and Kelly, our first true gulp of China.  That gulp, of course, was fully flavored, since the smog from unseen factories belches its sickening intestines into the already thick air.  Our driver, Mr. Chen, led us on an exciting drive that resembled a mix of dodge-ball, chicken and an obstacle course.  China is a world of paradoxes, a true clash of classes, insomuch that beautiful, well groomed parks lie millimeters away from trash heaps.  In the midst of construction stretches rice paddies.  The push to build rushes the landscape to a cacophonous chaos; all around is a constant churning of movement and silent upheaval.

When we arrived at the burial ground of the famed terracotta warriors, Xiaolan informed us that our connections had given us VIP status—always nice to hear.  Our van quickly bypassed the main gate with its huddled masses of common-folk and drove directly into the compound.  Before us stretched Pit One, the site of the most impressive army of terracotta warriors, conscripted to protect the emperor in his afterlife.  The design of such works of art itself must have required an army of artisans.  Each face is slightly different, giving each figure its own character.  Some archeologists theorize that two artisans worked together, each copying the other’s faces.

The terracotta army, as it appeared prior to excavation

The terracotta warriors—known in Chinese as the 马俑 (Bīngmǎyǒng) or warrior-horse-statues—were found beneath a wooded mound-apparently designed to blend in with the surrounding hills.

We walked through the main door of Pit One, joining the multi-national multitudes to stare across the field of upright soldiers.  Our English guide and Xiaolan rushed us along; our apparent VIP status did not afford us the luxury of long contemplation.

Although the warriors and horses were discovered in 1974, they are still very much an archaeological "work in progress" 

When the warriors were discovered, most were found in ruin, shattered in pieces by an unknown destroyer.  However, their feet were still set in the obvious rows, thus allowing the archaeologists to piece together the artifacts that we were observing.
These high ranking headless officers may have been the head-men of the immobile army
We journeyed on to Pit Two, the smallest of the three pits.  Apparently this was headquarters to the underground army, since here were buried the high ranking officers.  It is hard to imagine that these are merely representations of beings and not the very beings themselves.  Archaeologists have studied the bones of real warriors of the time and found that these terracotta imitations are truly larger-than-life, made, likely by the emperor’s decree, to be somewhat larger than the average person.

From Pit Two, we made our way to Pit Three, an archeological dig in the works.  It is estimated that there are still possibly a thousand unearthed terracotta warriors buried in this pit.  However, our tour guide informed us that archeologists are awaiting better technology before they begin work on this pit.

After the massive pits, we were led to the reduced-sized versions of horse drawn chariots.  Each chariot is drawn by four horses, these smaller versions imitate the larger ones found with their counterparts in the other pits.
This lucky archer apparently looks like Shaanxi province.  Obviously Italy and Michigan don't have a monopoly on object-resemblance.

Our visit to the terracotta warriors was complete with a gift shop, selling all sizes of figures.  We purchased my personal favorite—the archer.  The archer is “very lucky”, we were told, but, beyond luck, it cuts an interesting figure, replete with detailed buttons.  Additionally, the shape of the archer is said to resemble Shaanxi province…of which Xi’an is the capital.

Xiaolan had called reservations for a posh restaurant, and to find it meant almost driving down the steps of the entrance way and the wrong way on one-way streets.  We, of course, knew nothing about the reservations.  Our purpose in life so far has been to follow, generally just a nose-breadth into the future, so we were surprised when we walked through the restaurant doors.  An enormous chandelier dangled from the ceiling and the three women at the front desk wore elegant red evening dresses that clashed harshly with our grubby excursion outfits.  We were lucky, however…no foreigners allowed.  Of course, my pride was hurt, after a brief taste of what the meal might have been, to have been turned away simply because of my nationality.  Nonetheless, driver Chen saved the day by suggesting another restaurant that served us a feast just the same (cf. ).

Thus, ended a week-long morning.  Now we could finally say that we had arrived in Xi’an. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

In Xi'an at last

We boarded the shuttle bus at 6:05 am and arrived promptly at the Pudong airport shortly afterward.  Shanghai has a population of 23 million people, more than 2.8 times the population of New York City.  And yet, our first impressions of it are of an eerily silent city.

In the airport we came across the other members of our crew—Dr. Henry, her husband, Bill, Stacey and Carrie.  After a nondescript exchange of adventures and a brief repast with delicious coffee (and I thought China was a country of tea-drinkers), we boarded the shuttle for our plane.  No one catches this plane just before it leaves.  Our shuttle skirted the tarmac and weaved its way past dozens of awaiting aircraft before finally depositing us at the door of China Eastern, and through the portal to Xi’an.

Onboard China Eastern, elegant flight attendants with red, blue and golden scarves served us our first true Chinese meal: an airplane version of a thousand year old egg, watery rice and pork.  The heavens treated us with a bumpy ride all the way to our destination.

Xiaolan, the school’s representative and international coordinator, met us in the Xi’an airport.  Effusive and cheerful, a fluent English speaker, Xiaolan led us to our awaiting buses and shuttled us over Xi’an motor-ways to Gaoxin school.  The scenery itself was a mélange of old and new, rice fields spread out against a backdrop of smoke-belching factories.  Our short jaunt brought a variety of colorful scenes—neon Chinese characters and load-toting motorcycles.

Finally, we pulled through the gates of Gaoxin school where Principal Wang awaited us.  All but Bill, Dr. Henry, Kelly and I continued on to their host homes, but, since we were staying at the school, Principal Wang and Xiaolan invited us to a private lunch.

This was a China that would not be hard to love.  Once in the dining quarters, Principal Wang motioned in a half dozen dishes—eggplant salad, dumplings, noodles, rice, tortilla-like breads, among others, washed down by a steady supply of tea.

Later, when our appetites had been satiated, we rose from the table and were ushered through the school which would soon become our day-home.  Now we got our first glimpse of real-life Chinese students.  Principal Wang drew our attention to the gracious calligraphy that one of the illustrious students had painted, the subtleties lost on our dull American senses.  Next, we passed a group of students taking advantage of their two hour lunch break to perform slow dance-like exercises.  Finally, we entered the auditorium where unsupervised students were practicing musical pieces, singing along with the piano.  Again, the concept of students without supervision is as foreign to us as the calligraphy we had just scanned.

Much of our afternoon was spent in the company of Bill and Dr. Henry, walking and talking our way to the supermarket and back to gather the supplies necessary for survival—bottles of water, mops, towels, and other items to help the transformation of our quarters into our temporary home.

Our second view of the students was at supper.  We joined the students, all dressed in blue and white uniforms, in the cafeteria for our choice of food.  Kelly and I both ordered a large ceramic bowl of soup, teaming with squid, tiny eggs, crab, various vegetables and noodles.  As we slurped our noodles like little kids, we kept our eyes on the students to figure out proper protocol.  We noticed that when students didn’t like a particular item, they dug through their own dishes and plopped that item on the table.  I had never quite seen that custom before, but I suppose it gives the table-cleaners a reason for existing.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

On to Shanghai

Our journey to China began in the Lexington airport, quaint and silent, from which we took our flight over the familiar green sprawl of Kentucky and Ohio.  When we reached Detroit International airport, we were greeted by that most reverent of giants, the 747, lolling beyond the glass, garnering the strength to take us the 15 hours to Shanghai.

I always enjoy a window-seat, and today’s flight served me with clear skies and phenomenal views.  We headed north across the Hudson Bay, across the rolling dirty-snow grey of Canada, like the wrinkled skin of a Shar-Pei.  I drowned in the constancy of the view and soon drifted away.  But hours into our flight, my attention was diverted again to the window, now to the interminable fields of ice, riddled with fine crevices.  The ice fields continued for hours, a spectacle unlike any I had seen before.

The flight was enjoyable enough.  Kelly’s other seat-mate provided her with cultural Chinese information.  I could not hear him for the roar of the engines.  The meals, the in-flight movies, and my stack of Smithsonians kept our minds occupied enough to whittle away the hours.  For the first time in my life, we followed the sun, chasing it for most of the trip, then finally overtaking it.  Through the evening’s rays of tomorrow’s sun, we made out our first views of China.  The dimming light played against the hillsides, and powerfully a river, like a dragon, wound its way around them.

We reached Shanghai at 7:30 p.m., over a day after we left, due to the magic of the prescribed latitudes.  After a brief night’s rest in a hotel near the airport, we will continue tomorrow to our destination: Xi’an.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Anticipating departure

I have chosen this moment, two evenings before our departure, to initiate my dialogue with my unseen guests.  One week will bring a complete scene change: language, food and environment.  As I type to the patter of rain against the window, my eyes travel around our little office, pausing at the map of China taped to the wall, the ‘Year of China’ t-shirt hanging beside it.  They trip along past the bookshelf, crammed with books.  I have lost myself in a few of them over the past months, gleaning the sense of the world in which we will soon be immersed.  Certainly, my senses anticipate the tantalizing experiences that await them, the sights, the smells, and–my favorite things—the language and the food.

My wife, Kelly, has detailed our pre-flight preparations.  You can read her blog postings at