On Sunday, we took the high-speed train from Beijing to Xi'an, which cruised along at a speed of about 300 km/hour (186 mi/hour). It was a five-hour ride, but we hardly noticed because the ride was so smooth and comfortable, especially from our first-class seats.
Since the forecast for Monday was "dust," with a big fuzzy cloud drawn on the weather map, and since we were tired from traveling and sightseeing in Beijing, we decided to just stick close to our apartment that day. The pollution problem here is real, and most days look like "dust" to me, even when the forecast doesn't mention it, so if they call it out, you know it's serious.
On Tuesday, we decided to visit Tang Paradise, which was essentially a large park, with a lake in the center. We had been expecting shows and parades and activities but had to settle for just a nice walk in the park and a look at the new year's decorations, which were still scattered throughout the grounds. It wasn't very forienger-friendly, so we may have just not understood what was going on, which was a problem that plagued us even before we arrived. We actually waited for quite a long time for a bus that never arrived and ended up just walking the three miles to the park. The best part about that, though, was that we got to have lunch at a truly authentic Chinese place, where the use of English wasn't an option. We ordered blindly by pointing to the table next to us, and we ended up with a delicious beef, noodle, dumpling, and green onion soup, which we ate with chopsticks. (Yes, we ate soup with chopsticks!) It was awesome! The owner was so happy to have us and was completely impressed with Weston's ability to count in Chinese. He then thought Weston ought to be able to act as a true translator for us, but eventually gave up chatting when he realized Weston couldn't get much beyond numbers. At the end of the day, we successfully caught the bus back to our apartment and decided to reward ourselves by going out to dinner. We went in the first restaurant we saw, which happened to be a real-deal (not Americanized) Chinese buffet. We had the option to fill our plates with cooked foods or raw foods that we could cook ourselves at our table. We got to try lots of interesting things, and we had a great time.
Yesterday was our day to go out and see the famous terra cotta army, just outside of Xi'an. We had much better luck with public transportation than we had the previous day and got where we needed to go in the amount of time we expected. It's the little victories! The museum was such a fascinating site, and we enjoyed seeing some of the 3000 warriors that have been excavated so far. Each one of them is unique, and the excavating process seems so interesting. We were very glad we made the effort to go and see it and definitely felt it was worth it. We got back to our apartment late in the afternoon and decided we just needed a break from Chinese food, so we took ourselves down to the Pizza Hut on the corner. We're all about adventure, but sometimes people just need something sort of familiar, that doesn't require chopsticks!
We were ready to jump fully back into the Chinese food scene this morning, which was great, because we had already booked a food tour with Lost Plate. Our guide met us at the subway station, and we crammed into two little tuk tuks and headed off to hit some VERY local joints and try some TRULY authentic local cuisine. Our first stop was at a tiny hole-in-the-wall, where the same family has been making the same "thousand layer pancakes" for over fifty years. There was one table in the middle of the room, just big enough for our group and two other people. The cooking station was literally just a couple of feet away. The pancakes were more like large dumplings and were filled with meat and onions and green vegetables, before being smashed between two griddles and cooked to perfection. They were fantastic--easily my favorite Chinese food, so far. Our next stop was at an even smaller place, where the line stretched down the block. There were no tables inside, but there were a few tiny tables with stools (think preschool classroom) scattered along the sidewalk and down an alleyway. There we had soup made with beef, potatoes, red carrots, cabbage, green onions, cornstarch, and plenty of anise. One version also had a spicy pepper sauce in it. After that we took some time to digest, as we walked through the market. Oh my! I'm not even sure I can describe it. It was wild! We saw everything you can imagine and probably lots of things you can't. All the usual foods were for sale, right alongside the home goods and underwear. We also saw several dentists, a chiropractor, and tables of sex toys thrown in for good measure. But, our favorite stop was a pet store specializing in one particular type of pet: crickets. I have never, ever been in a store like that before. There was one whole wall, filled with tiny cages, which contained the "singing" crickets. The special "fighting" crickets were kept on the counter in boxes. The owner tried to get a couple to fight for us but ultimately concluded that it was just too cold outside to get them riled up. I promise you, I am not making this stuff up! In addition to the critters themselves, there were also a great many accessories to make pet crickets comfortable, just like you would find in any pet store. When we had finished gawking in the market, we continued our food tour. (Because you know how looking at buckets of maggots and trailers full of raw livers will really cause you to work up an appetite!) Our next two stops were for true street food, in the market. We had stone bread, which is a sort of savory, flat cornbread, which is cooked under hot stones, that leaves it indented and pocked. Our guide told us this recipe is the oldest known Chinese recipe. Before we had time to finish those, we grabbed some persimmon cakes, which was the only sweet food we had on the tour, and which we were told is truly unique to Xi'an and dates back to the Ming Dynasty. They were very much like fried fruity doughnuts, but the method of frying them was pretty interesting. They scooped the dough into large metal ladle-looking spoons, which they then submerged in boiling oil for a couple of minutes. Our final stop led us to another teeny mom-and-pop place, where we were invited to participate in the noodle making with the proprietary family. While we made noodles, our guide went next door to order some dumplings, so that we ended up with sour soup dumplings and noodles with beef and greens. By that time, we were nice and stuffed, so we couldn't finish everything. When our tour was done, we received gift bags with chopsticks, spices, recipes, and postcards, and we got to keep our tea thermoses we received and used earlier in the day. It was such a fantastic experience! If you are ever visiting Xi'an and you're feeling adventurous, you must put this tour on your list of things to absolutely do.
I'm sorry for the long post and the massive brain dump (and the lack of pictures). Our internet here is atrocious, so I just had to throw it all out there in one giant session (though, truth be told, the internet has failed at least a dozen times while I've been trying to write this, and it has taken hours to get it posted). If you stuck with me through this, thanks. I know your time is valuable, and it means a lot to me that you are using some of it to be a part of our journey!