Want to feel like a celebrity?
Just hop on a plane to China, and prepare yourself to have cameras pointed at you day and night…and numerous requests to join selfies.
It is abundantly clear that the folks in Central China are fascinated, joyous, and curious about those of us who don’t look like them…and they often want to document their sighting with a side-by-side selfie.
Shaanxi (shawn SHE) Province is a landlocked region in central China. Imagine a giant number seven superimposed across the province, with the Great Wall disintegrating across the north, and the Yellow River roaring vertically to the east. I was able to get up close and personal with both: the wall made me weep, imagining all of the lives lost both building and protecting the fortification that was begun in the 7thCentury BC.; and the Hukou Waterfall of the Yellow River made it LOOK like I was weeping as it doused me with its plummeting spray. I tilted my head up and let the spray soak me.
“You hot froat?” a soft voice asked.
“Hot froat?” I looked down and there was a dark, weathered face grinning up at me, half of the brown teeth missing. She was huddled in a patterned red jacket…it seemed to me that a majority of the elderly women I encountered wore them.
She rattled something off in Chinese, her head back, eyes closed.
Her daughter tried to help, asking, what sounded like, “Meh tate? Zhen? Hot froat.” She held her hands in prayer and dipped her forehead to her fingertips.
“Aaaaah! Heart float! Yes, I have heart float. The waterfall is magical!” We all bobbed our heads crazily, grinning with our hands held in prayer.
The Terracotta Army in Xi’an (she ON) will certainly tickle archaeologists and history buffs…the discovery of thousands of terra cotta warriors buried with China’s first Emperor, Qin Shi Huang. Covering almost 40 miles, only a fraction of the 6-8,000 life-size and life-like statues have been unearthed so far. While the reassembled army, standing in formation is impressive, it’s estimated that it will take decades to complete the job.
I have to wonder what on earth those farmers thought when they first discovered the site in 1974, as they dug a well? How amazing to have been one of those guys, working away and realize, “Hey, Jin, I think we’ve got something here, and it ain’t water…”
With a stage that dips in and out of the waters of the Huaquing Hotspring, the “Song of Everlasting Sorrow” is a full-production performance that rivals any in Las Vegas. It’s based on a true historical drama, and the experience is so visually dazzling that an understanding of Chinese is unnecessary. Numerous sets, stages, songs, costumes and even pyrotechnics support this elaborate performance, with even the mountain in the background coming to life. This attraction in Xi’an only takes place from April to October, as it’s too cold for the dancers to be splashing in the water.
75 miles to the east of Xi’an, I rode the cable cars up to the north peak of Mount Huashan, one of China’s five sacred mountains. I had plenty of time to myself, as my friends continued on, up numerous steps to the “world’s most dangerous hike,” which consists of old planks of wood about a foot wide, bolted to the side of the sheer granite mountain, with a 2,000 meter drop. Straight down. I stayed behind and found a shaded spot to meditate. I soon reached a state of heart float, with the birdsong and wind rustling the leaves, their echoes bouncing down the valley.
Continuing north to Hancheng (hawn CHAYng), intricate pagodas dot the hilltops, and cave dwellings cut into the hillsides (these two unique forms of architecture were also juxtaposed right next to modern high-rises in the larger cities). Pagodas are a traditional part of Chinese architecture and are distinctive tiered towers with multiple eaves. There is a religious significance to the number of tiers, which are almost always odd numbered. Cave dwellings are a common form of housing found in this province that have been in use for centuries. These extremely efficient caves still house up to 40 million people, and are dug into the compact yellow earth, called loess.
As we approached in the evening, Hancheng welcomed us with a blast of color and neon that rivaled the approach to Vegas. The next morning, we found their vibrant farmer’s market, a daily venue that sells mostly homegrown or homemade items such as produce, seeds, meats, clothing, full meals and more. The friendly vendors didn’t speak English but would cheerfully bag up anything we pointed to, and often ask to take our picture.
There’s also an outdoor Gourmet Food Court in old town Hancheng, where dozens of vendors sell local favorites, such as barbecued beef and lamb skewers, noodles, soups, stir-fries, fresh vegetables, breads, dumplings and my favorite…the “you gao,”a fig-filled pastry, deep-fried and then sprinkled with sugar. The food court doesn’t accept cash…you must purchase a debit card in the Tourist Service Center (first booth on the right). It’s not labeled in English, but if you can’t find it, walk up to any booth and before ordering, flash some cash and they’ll direct you. I’d put 70 to 100 Yuen on the card per person…they’ll reimburse whatever you don’t use when you’re finished.
Laughing children in brightly colored uniforms walked by, pointing at me, whispering to each other behind cupped hands.
I gestured toward them with my camera and one girl screamed, breaking free from the safety of her friends, running up to me and jumping up and down, clapping.
“Selfie?” I asked, holding the camera out and dipping my head.
I put my arm around her shoulder and her classmates gathered ‘round, cellphones at the ready.
A barrage of clicks and we were united forever in a multitude of snapshots.
At each meal, the Lazy Susan’s were filled with more and more artistically plated dishes of boiled chicken (moist and salty), delicately seasoned bok choy, warm rice noodles in spicy oil and topped with green onion, sweetened garlic served whole and crunchy, duck soup…plates had to be removed in order to make room for new dishes… sautéed vegetables with tofu, stir fried rice with aromatic rape seed oil, spicy fried carp from the Yellow River….
Most Americans don’t eat Chinese food three times a day, but it actually worked (there are western options in the larger hotels, and the big cities have McDonalds and KFC). This central region doesn’t serve a lot of rice, but it’s heavy-handed with the noodles and potatoes, two starches that they dolled up with spices and meats such as pork, lamb or beef and numerous veggies. Traveling north, away from Xi’an, the spices became milder as the Sichuan region…and influence…receded.
As I find with most foreign travel, it’s the people I’m reflecting on most. Day to day it’s so easy to focus on the differences we all have, but when I travel, especially to foreign countries, it never ceases to amaze me how much we all have in common. Strangers reach out and want to understand. They want to connect.
Home now, my dreams are filled with hilltop Pagodas and red Chinese lanterns swaying in the breeze, stylish calligraphy beckoning me to return to heart float.