thirty-three: Xi'an & Shanghai
nb: this blog will have to serve as a memory of two cities I passed through between Lhasa and San Francisco. (I say pass through because my state of mind was such -- the commute ‘home’ from Tibet was exactly that – an impatient scurrying to get to cleaner air and a place to decompress. when my mind/body hit saturation, no amount of my willpower could make room for more traffic…)
Xi’an was described in the 1995 LP as one of China’s cleanest, greenest cities, once again proving that expectation sets the stage for disappointment or pleasant surprise. something about this quite-beautiful city has allowed its air to wallow within its thick stone walls and settle like a film blocking the nostrils’ attempts to respire. my fatigue here was biological, and worsened by a lingering cold from kick-in-the-ass altitude changes up in Tibet.
nonetheless, Xi’an is vibrant and it’s Ming city walls, recently completed to allow circumnavigation, envelope the city center with atmosphere. its wide tree-lined avenues (again chessboard format – likely the precursor to Beijing, as Xi’an was the imperial capital long before Beijing ever was) were buzzing at 10pm with people out walking – couples hand in hand, late-night diners, mothers with babies out for a play (dirty pajamas scrubbing the sidewalk surface). Xi’an’s food culture is vibrant as well, influenced by a thriving Muslim quarter, and patronized by late-night throngs of university students and domestic tourists; a strolling, progressive street-stall dinner included, in sequence (and over 1.5 hours), fresh watermelon, pepper-fried squid-on-a-stick, herb-filled cabbage humbao, steamed rice-flour cakes, fennel and egg pancakes, and a can of warm tsing tao.
Xi’an is perhaps most famous not for the urban center itself but for its surrounding historical monuments, not the least of which is the tomb of the terra-cotta warriors. (you don’t need to read this blog to get a description of one of China’s most famous tourist attractions). for someone who tires of ‘sights’ this was one that didn’t fail to astound, and was worth the pomp and circumstance of long lines & clicking cameras. China’s first emperor (Qin Shi Huang, circa 250 BC, and the same emperor that began the building of the Great Wall) had a fantastical fervor for his own egomaniacal safety in the afterlife and buried some 6000 life-size warriors near his tomb. three pits of varying sizes, in varying states of excavation, are open to the public, the largest of which is housed in a football-field sized hangar. the first several rows of warriors have been restored to near-mint condition, their body-parts reassembled, their stances upright and aligned. near the rear of the hangar is where time and gravity are revealed; limbs and heads and torsos lie piled on top of each other at various helter-skelter angles, growing from the ground, disappearing into walls, bodies becoming earth becoming bodies. the 2000 year-old subterranean claustrophobia is palpable, one man’s suffocating fear of death physically captured and unintentionally revealed (the tombs were meant to be a secret forever: no written record of their existence has been found).
…this is perhaps a good segue to Shanghai, where the highlight of a brief 4 days was the Shanghai Museum. (I sound like a tourbook but) the ancient bronze collection is unmissable; it’s hard not to be blown away by imagining the development of bronze-casting techniques from the 15th century BC, painstakingly developed over generations, through a multitude of hands, that produced pieces that still retain in the sterile glow of a glass museum box a singular Presence. not surprisingly, war and worship seemed to be the biggest inspirations in the way of weapons and statues of Buddha, reminding me humbly that progress is a farce.
Shanghai…I’d heard of its romance and looked for it hard, finding instead very expensive restaurants on the Bund full of beautiful Caucasians for whom begging mothers with children on their hips wait at night, hands outstretched. I found the city’s poetry at 4:30 am, after a night of insomnia, sitting on the waterfront. at this hour the Bund is finally reclaimed by the city (and not overrun by the 9pm spectacle of coca-cola stalls): an old man flying a kite ran-skipped his way down the promenade, trying to stay in front of his kite as he reeled it in, a few joggers & all-night partiers headed home, the Pudong business district across the water finally dark, save for the growing light of dawn, the streetlights along the Bund flickering off in quick succession around 4:45am.
at night, I found the city’s made-up oddness walking through the Yu Yuan district, towards the water, the streets lightless and dark in the name of energy-saving, while down near the water towers and advertisements glowed with fluorescent gaudiness. people still sit on sidewalks eating in the urban night, even as their low-rise apartments are being choked by the surrounding towers and the roar of construction. this same phenomena was confirmed when I ascended SOM’s Jin Mao tower, by far Shanghai’s best built highrise; far below, the waterfront glows, as do the Nanjing and Huaihai shopping thoroughfares, but much of the city beyond lies in darkness – another reminder that perhaps only the most visible parts of urban China are racing ahead at a pace much faster than the rest of the country, and often at its expense.
for being mainland China’s counterpoint to global Hong Kong, finding internet in Shanghai is a scavenger hunt that takes the seeker up unadvertised stair corridors into smoke-filled rooms of silent games and the 24-hour stares of pale faces behind half-shuttered windows. these hidden hangouts are nothing short of bizarre, rarely signed in non-Chinese, if signed at all, and seem to be a by-product of a crackdown on internet use, especially by foreigners, who, if we manage to find these places at all, are subjected to a rigorous passport screening replete with multiple scans of multiple pages of our little blue/red/black/brown, etc. books. however, like HK, the city-airport rail link, in the guise of the Maglev, is hard to beat: 9 minutes of supersonic speeding through the city’s blurry panorama that tilts forwards and away as the compartment leans on its rails. it reaches a phenomenal 400km/hr but only for the middle minute, before the train must start slowing down after attaining its peak speed.
this airport departure experience, along with the time spent amongst the bronze museum pieces, were the moments in Shanghai that made my heart race. I dare not blame the city, and I was loathe to even blog this one, recognizing my state-of-mind which needed a reset none-too-soon. however, to presume that my readings of other cities, when I am bright-eyed & fresh, are somehow more ‘objective’ is no less risky – so I honestly admit: here I was, perhaps a little too tired to see much at all. my apologies to Xi’an, and even more to Shanghai, whose extended metro lines into suburban reaches surely have much to reveal.