Xian - Smog, Fog, Mist and Mystery

from: room 588 May First Hotel, Xi'an. Shaanxi Province.

Xian is more like the Chinese city I had pictured in my mind. Beijing, for all it's qualities, cannot compete with and evening stroll through Xian for mystery or romance. Perhaps it was just my mood, but this evening as Julie and I walked home from our visit to Dayan Ta (Big Goose) Pagoda, where Monks and pilgrims offering incense ignored the German coach tourists taking their pictures, it seemed we had crossed into a blend of post-apocalyptic thriller and an old set-piece drama.

The backdrop was the gray and misty evening sky that was attempting to muster drizzle. As dusk approached and the majority of rush hour cars went home (having deposited a satisfactory amount of their blue fumes into the already pasty sky), the street vendors began preparing for the evenings' business. Great metal Wok-shaped pots filled with water were being brought to roiling boils perched atop rusty cans cut so flames could escape up and out to surround the vat above. In the increasing gloom these enticing points of bright warmth betrayed their accompanying smoke with halos of light and watery eyed coughing cooks.

Through this enveloping cloud of diesel fumes, drizzle, smoke and twilight haze, the remaining cars slalom with cyclists, mopeds, rickshaws and pedestrians with and without carts. This mass is performing the ballet of Chinese traffic rule number one - move in a bold and determined manner without regard to anything but the game of chicken you are constantly engaged in. If you judge the resolve of your opponent incorrectly, the resulting accident will be the fault of that person with lesser success persuading the inevitable jury of passersby that the other was responsible. Not speaking Chinese is a distinct disadvantage in this situation. All this takes place on an avenue under heavy construction and filled with thick dust,deafening machinery and yelling workers.

Eventually the old city walls of this once imperial capital solidify out of the mist and we pass into the ancient center of town where things are gloomier, busier and louder. The choking air and blaring parade is compressed further by the narrow streets flanked on either side by numerous establishments selling exactly the same thing - this street men's dress pants, this one funeral wreaths, over here everyone sells televisions. Punctuating these districts are always the kiosks selling cigarettes and bottled drinks. Soon we have entered the Muslim quarter and the smells interlacing the car exhaust and coal smoke are of vinegar, steaming dumplings and spiced lamb skewers cooking over little charcoal grills. Megaphones roar from stores, neon signs flash their colors into the smoke, empty taxis honk to get our attention and shopkeepers shout out 'hallo!' to do the same. That or keep their glowing faces glued to the t.vs behind their counters. Old men in Mao suits, women in traditional Muslim headgear and children in Mickey Mouse sweaters all glance, stare, giggle or ignore us as we pass by. Eventually though, the drizzle starts to turn the fine dust on the paving stones to a thin layer of slippery mud. We turn and head 'home'.

We do so with regret as every dark alley echoes with exotic voices and invites exploration. Each straight street fades out of sight in the smoke and begs to be walked just a little further. I am happy though - Xian is more like the China I had pictured in my mind and now I have the burning eyes and wet cough to prove it.

~ Nigel



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