He Said, She Said in Xi’an


This blog entry about the events of Friday, August 27, 2004 was originally posted on September 01, 2004.

DAY 314:  Xi’an, the former imperial capital for eleven dynasties since China’s territories were unified by Emperor Qin Shi Huang of the Qin dynasty, lies about a third of the way westward from the eastern Pacific coast.  Here, the Great Silk Road was established linking trade between the Romans and the Far East, making Xi’an one of western China’s most prosperous cities not only politically but commercially.  Today, Xi’an is the political and commercial capital of the Shaanxi province, a modern city of five million whose center is surrounded by protective city stone walls.  For tourists, it is the base for visiting one of China’s must-sees:  Qin’s Terracotta Warriors.

A GUY HOLDING UP THE HOSTELLING INTERNATIONAL LOGO was outside the crowded Xi’an train station, waiting the arrival of the seven people who had made a reservation for their hostel in town.  A Dutch couple, four young Germans and I arrived in piecemeal and collectively hopped in a van, which took us across town near the city wall’s south gate to the HI Shuyuan Hostel, a big rustic Chinese building with three inner courtyards.  The registration process for the seven of us was a somewhat time-consuming one, with all the forms, passports and payments only being handled by two people. 

While waiting my turn at the end of the queue, I noticed a girl waiting too, looking a bit impatient, but with the polite poise to keep it in.  I couldn’t place where she might have come from; I just saw that she had Western-looking features.  “I’m just trying to check out,” she told me in an American accent, tipping me off.  I let her go ahead of me, but she still had to wait, so I started with the usual small talk.

“Have you been in China long?” I asked.  She told me that although she was from Houston, she was living in China, studying in Beijing.  She had been on a jaunt to Xi’an for a couple of days, but had a flight back that afternoon.  I explained to her my disorientation of China, not knowing exactly where I should go — due to the fact that The Blog had taken up most of my time that I could have used to read up on places of interest — and she suggested that I might try going to Chengdu and Guilin, places she hadn’t been yet, but had heard raves about. 

When the young Chinese guy at the desk attended to her, her mouth opened and blew my mind — she was fluent in Mandarin, with all the rising, falling, high, low and undulating tones that I try to use, but end up making me sound like I’m trying to talk with the inflections of Scooby-Doo.  I stood there feeling open-jawed, totally mesmerized, like when Tia Carrere’s character was impressed with Rob Lowe’s character in the first Wayne’s World movie as he ordered Chinese food in her native Chinese language — all while Wayne (Mike Myers) jokingly ordered the “Cream of Some Young Guy.” 

The guy at the desk said something in his native tongue, and she totally understood it.  She said something back and he understood it too.  He said something, then she said something and the two of them were going back and forth in Mandarin, chuckling at times, like a Chinese linguistic Olympic ping-pong match — until she missed the ball with a reversion to English:  “Um, can I put my bags in the storage?”  He gave her the key.

“Where are you going after here?” the guy asked me when he was filling in my registration.  Hostels always seem to ask you what your next destination city is, even though I really didn’t have a clue as to where that might be.

“Um, let’s say Chengdu,” I said, pointing to the notes I took from the girl’s advice.  “Since she says it’s so good.”

The Mandarin-speaking American girl went off to store her bags for the day while I paid for my accommodation.  She tapped me on the shoulder before she left to go wander the city.  “Nice meeting you,” she said in English.  She probably could have said it in Mandarin, but I probably wouldn’t have understood it. 

I DECIDED TO KEEP MY SIGHTSEEING LIGHT for the day so I could spend the afternoon and evening to catch up on The Blog.  After discovering a little divey restaurant with the best little freshly steamed dumplings I’ve had to date (and for just 37 cents [USD] for ten), I went out to see the immediate sights in the downtown area, the first thing being the most noticeable structure in the center of town, the Bell Tower.  Once having held the bell that indicated reporting time at dawn in days of the Ming dynasty, this 16th century tower had been most recently restored in the 18th.  Nowadays on the second tier of the Bell Tower was a bell (no surprise there), although not the original — it was merely a replica made in 1996 so that tourists could ring it for prosperity (and for a fee).  Inside the tower was a small exhibition of smaller bells, as well as a view of Xi’an’s commercial sprawl below.

Just to the west of the Bell Tower — beyond some promotional statues made out of Heineken bottles and a park where people flew multi-piece kites — was the Drum Tower which, you guessed it, used to hold a drum.  Similar to the situation with the Bell Tower, the original drum that was banged everyday at dusk was no longer there — the only drumbeat heard was from people ignoring the “No Banging” sign near replica drums.  There were many other drums, big ones, small ones, drums all in a row — which was sort of fitting for a place called the “Drum Tower.”  Inside the tower was a stage for the seven-piece demonstration of traditional Xi’an drum music, usually played in ceremonies during the sixth moon of the Chinese calendar, around July.  Looking at the performance schedule I saw that I had just missed the latest show, but asked for permission to come back in the afternoon to see it at three.

THE THIRD MAIN SITE of my light sightseeing day was The Great Mosque, China’s largest, serving the fairly large Chinese Muslim population, evolved from the Muslim influence during the days of the Great Silk Road.  Also known as The Great Eastern Mosque, its architecture took the ideas from the Arabs and put a Chinese twist on them.  For example, the minaret structure wasn’t a square tower as seen in Arabia, but an octagonal pagoda known as The Introspection Tower

The mosque grounds were divided into four courtyards, each one with gates and pillars representing an aspect of the Muslim faith.  At the western end of the fourth and final courtyard was the Main Worship Hall, where Chinese Muslims came to pray to Allah.  I left the faithful to pray and quietly slipped away.

“OH HEY,” I SAID to a familiar face when I went back to the hostel to finally get to my Blog writing.  It was the Mandarin-speaking American girl I met that morning, eating a pomegranate to kill time before her flight.  Her name was Elisa, and she was a philosophy student at RenMin(?) University on full scholarship — although she came to realization not to mention that to locals after receiving snide comments about the fact that the Chinese government could afford to pay her to study and not to feed all its people.  I sat down with her to chat — The Blog could wait — still amazed that she was fluent in Mandarin.  She schooled me on the sites to see in and around Xi’an, as well as three very useful phrases that she wrote down for me in Pinyin:  Duo shao qian? (How much?); Ji kuai? (How many?); and Keyi pianyi ma? (Can you make it cheaper?)

“Feel like going for a walk?” I asked.

“Yeah, it beats just sitting around here waiting.”

The two of us went out on a leisurely stroll to the nearby Muslim Quarter; she had frequented it during her five days in Xi’an and posed as my Western-looking (her parents were from Spain), Eastern-speaking tour guide.  She pointed out the fact that there were Chinese Muslim women around with green eyes and introduced me to ba bau jim gao, a local sweet treat made of rice flour, sesame seeds and different colored sugars that she was totally hooked on.  I’ll admit they were quite tasty.  We continued down the street, me holding my empty wooden skewer that the sweet snack was placed on — me and my “Don’t Litter” American mindset.

“Just throw it in the street,” Elisa said as an old ex-pat pro.


“Yeah, it’s weird at first, but don’t worry, someone will clean it up.”  I threw the stick to the curb and followed behind my “guide.”

Elisa and I hit it off really easily — more so that I have with other travelers I’ve met — and we had a sort of instant connection as we walked down the main road of the Muslim Quarter, a street of bicycles whizzing by and exotic spicy smells filling the air.  We tried to get some halal meat on a stick to walk around with, but were led to a table by a persuasive restaurant staff.  Before we knew it, we were sitting at a table sharing a platter of lamb shish kebabs with glasses of Chinese plum juice — which I used to wash down the spices in the meat.

“What’s the matter, you can’t handle it?” Elisa teased me.

“No, I can handle it,” I said with a smirk, still eating the meat slowly so as to not overload my palate en masse. 

Being persuaded to sit at the eatery, even though we didn’t mind, was just one of the many times someone tried to bait-and-switch something on Elisa.  She warned me of how people might do it, like switching the stated price for a smaller quantity or something like that.  She told me the phrases in Mandarin, but it was totally over my head.  Maybe I could just order the Cream of Some Young Guy and have the last laugh.

“Be careful at that restaurant,” she warned me.  “Little kids unzip your bag and take your money.” 

“Don’t worry, they think I’m Chinese.”

Just like my experience traveling with Western-looking Tatiana in Mongolia, people approached me and my East Asian-looking face first with the local language — only for me to respond with a clueless face and have Elisa speak up for me.

“Give me your hand,” she said.  Not only did she know the language of Mandarin, but she knew the language of palms, and read mine to learn more about the guy she met just that morning.  She told me that I was quite a determined individual that didn’t seem too religious.

“Actually I think this trip has made me more religious,” I told her and explained my philosophy on Fatism.  “I’ve found that nothing is coincidental.  Everything happens for a reason.” 

The philosophy student continued on with the palm reading.  “These four lines are for the four women you are going to meet in Life that will teach you how to love,” she told me. 

“What about yours?”

“I have three, but I think I’ve met those three guys already.”

THE TWO OF US FINISHED OUR MEAL and moved onto dessert when a walking street vendor came to us with candied crab apples (picture above).  We started eating them at the table but then got up and walked with them to make up time.  Vendors and beggars approached us in all directions — mostly to hound Elisa and not me.

“I told you they think I’m Chinese,” I told her.  “See, that?  They totally ignore me.”  It was like I had beggar/tout repellent on and she was amazed.

“You could probably blend in India too,” she told me.  Only when I got to India myself would I find out.

THE AFTERNOON WAS GOING BY FAST — I had skipped out on the three o’clock drum show to hang out; there’d be another at four — and the clock was soon approaching Elisa’s desired departure time to the airport.  We walked around the block onto the main road, back towards the direction of the hostel and the Drum Tower, talking about the hard work involved in writing and maintaining Blogs — she had one as well.  “I’m pretty much my Blog’s bitch,” I admitted to her.  It was true.

“Have you found it easy to get along with other travelers?” she asked me as I took another bite into candied apple goodness.  Perhaps she was wondering if I had clicked as well with others as I did with her.

“Actually, I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been traveling for so long, but I’ve noticed that I only really get along with other Americans,” I told her.  “I mean, anyone can learn to speak English, but I don’t know what it is, there’s just something that we share.”

We finally came to the crossroads by the Bell Tower where one path led back towards her baggage in storage at the hostel, and one led towards the four o’clock Xi’an drum music demonstration.  It was the time to part ways.  “You’re the coolest guy I’ve met in China,” she told me.  Our encounter was brief — only about two hours — but, as I told her, it might not have been coincidental.  I extended my hand for the usual goodbye formalities one does to a fellow traveler on the road — but she reached around and gave me a hug.

“Keep in touch.”

And then we parted ways.  I went off to the drum show at the Drum Tower, while Elisa went back to the hostel and then back to the airport to go back to Beijing to talk to her boyfriend back in Texas.  I spent the rest of my afternoon and evening in Xi’an finally attending to my overdue Blog duties.  Like I said, I’m pretty much my Blog’s bitch.

TO READ WHAT SHE SAID about the day, check out Elisa’s Blog at http://elisa.onegoodcookie.com.  The entry about our encounter is under her “Characters” category, dated August 28, 2004.  She’s got some great photos too; check them out.

Next entry: The Farmer That Found A Warrior Within

Previous entry: Workin’ For The Blog

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Comments for “He Said, She Said in Xi'an”

  • Don’t forget Lara and Sabastian! Who else could you dine on Oreos and Marmite with?! And with who else could you discuss the social impact of Darkwing Duck?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/31  at  07:34 PM

  • That is so cool - an American who speaks mandarin!  The asian languages seem so difficult to me.  I’m struggling to learn spanish.  I have a real respect for other Americans who are fluent in something else.

    You really do blend in everywhere!  I think that gives you a little extra insight, sort of like a spy.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/31  at  07:44 PM

  • those drumgirls are better than nick cannon

    ni hao ma, ni hun piaow liang

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/31  at  11:40 PM

  • sharon,

      stop calling me.  im over you…i should have given the asieda fruit to paul.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/31  at  11:44 PM

  • If Erik is the The Blog’s bitch, you can call me Erik’s bitch for The Blog!

    So what’s up now Bitch?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  09/01  at  01:52 AM

  • I never pictured the Blog personified, but now I can see it as a 6ft tall, 350lb, bald guy with tatoos, the sleves ripped off his prison shirt, standing over Erik saying “what have you done for me lately?”

    Okay Bub, back off our guy… he’s busy GOING places, and EXPERIENCING them. He’ll write when he’s ready!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  09/02  at  07:11 PM

  • u should kissed that bitch, BITCH ! she was looking for a short and exciting adventure with a crazy laid back chinese-american (sic) man like you. ... peace

    Posted by alex  on  09/02  at  07:43 PM

  • Cool adventure.  Just so happens that Sammy and I landed at the same hostel only days behind.  The blog is cool and thanks for the mention.  Safe travels.  I’ll let you know how Tibet is. 


    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  09/03  at  09:16 AM

  • TD0T:  Yes, we cannot forget those two…  although on the level of instant bonds, it really does boil down to the just the Americans (North Americans included)... Sebastian and Shelly come to mind.

    That’s not to say I don’t get along with other nationalities; I’m just talking about that special little je-ne-sais-quoi between Americans. 

    As for “Ms. Croft,” let us not forget that whenever Lara and I had a conversation, we’d always have to stop midway and say “What?” because of the differences in Americans and Brits…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  09/04  at  10:26 AM

  • CHRISTY:  Oh, believe me, “Blog” is personified everyday…  more like a nagging wife than anything.  (No offense to any nagging wives out there.)

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  09/04  at  10:28 AM

  • ALEX:  Unlike the way this entry was edited, Elisa actually made her boyfriend known to me much earlier…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  09/04  at  10:30 AM

  • PAUL:  Hey man, glad you’re keeping up…  I was hoping you’d get to read the whole bit about our philosophical conversation…

    Anyway, have fun with the warriors, I’m off to Guilin tonight…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  09/04  at  10:32 AM

  • I’m SO behind!!
    So, the animals on the corners of the roofs - are they on every corner, or just one per building? I think in a past entry you said that they’re for luck? Or to ward of evil spirits? Just curious…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  09/10  at  11:54 AM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by BootsnAll.com. It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

Praised and recommended by USA Today, RickSteves.com, and readers of BootsnAll and Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree, The Global Trip blog was selected by the editors of PC Magazine for the "Top 100 Sites You Didn't Know You Couldn't Live Without" (in the travel category) in 2005.

Next entry:
The Farmer That Found A Warrior Within

Previous entry:
Workin’ For The Blog


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