Lingyin Temple, Hangzhou, 2010

hangzhou-bkfstWe awoke the next day to a tasty brunch buffet at the Hyatt. Rice porridge is the most basic staple of any Chinese breakfast. Steamed buns and some dim sum. Pickled vegetables. Fried udon and bread pudding, not so much. But I wanted to try everything and fill up before we were out all day, possibly without breaks for food!

My mom took me to Lingyin Temple, 靈隐寺, which is literally translated as “Temple of the Soul’s Retreat”. It wasn’t hard to see why it’s one of the largest and wealthiest Buddhist temples in China. Our ticket was USD$16 each! Pretty ridiculous. There were also solicitors everywhere, trying to get you to go to their gift shops and to spend more money. Lingyin Temple wasn’t much like traditional Buddhist temples, which emphasize being low-key. This temple was incredibly commercialized.

lingyin2

lingyin

But we were here to see the Feilai Feng ‘飞来峰’, a most famous grotto of religious rock carvings. Feilai Feng gets its name from a legend that holds that the peak was originally from India but flew to Hangzhou within a single night, to demonstrate the omnipotence of Buddhist law. Comical Engrish translation on the left. While sometimes the Shinto and Buddhist temples in Japan could get a little busy, Lingyin temple was a sea of people. Everyone rammed into each other, scrambling to get a good view of the Buddha statues and competing to get the remaining sticks of incense. Smoke carpeted the atmosphere. Nevertheless, it was an experience. 

lingyin3

We visited the 大雄宝殿 [da xiong bao dian], or Grand Hall of the Great Sage. The building houses Shakyamuni, or better-known as Siddhartha (the Buddha). Shakyamuni is the largest wooden Buddhist statue in China. Over a hundred Buddhist personalities are depicted on the walls of the hall, along with inscriptions of Journey to the West (西遊記 xi you ji), one of the greatest pieces of Chinese literature.

After about two hours of suffocatingly smoky air and body heat, my mom and I broke away from the crowds of Lingyin to go to Santan Yin Yue 三潭印月, or “Three Pools Mirroring the Moon”. Santan Yin Yue is a small island in the middle of Xi Hu that encloses three small pagodas arranged in a triangle in the water. Each pagoda has holes carved into it, where lamps or candles can be placed. These beams of lights reflect on the water through the holes.

santan

But to be honest, I think I was more into the peacocks on the island than the architecture.  When we passed a booth selling lotus root powder, which is made from  [lian ou], or lotus root, my mom insisted on getting a bowl since you supposedly can’t get high-quality lotus root powder outside of XiHu. Ou-feng is essentially like corn starch, except that it’s drunk as a dessert soup using just the powder, hot water, sugar, and  [gui yuan], or longan flowers. Pretty delicious, and supposedly quite healthy for you according to Chinese medicine!

Then it was time for dinner! 外婆家 [Wai Po Jia], or Grandma’s House, is a relatively well-known restaurant in Hangzhou. Even though we went for an early dinner, around 5:30pm, there was already a line outside the restaruant. Luckily the restaurant has about 3 floors, so it was a short wait before we were escorted to our table. Wai Po Jia is loved for the range of local foods it provides: foods that are had to find anywhere else.

One of these dishes was 冬虫夏草 [dong chong xia cao], more formally known as Cordyceps Sinesis. Real cordyceps sinesis is an incredibly rare and precious herb; a fungus that parasitizes larvae of ghost moths and produces a fruiting body. The vegetable dish is named after this herb because the vegetable looks like a winter worm, or 冬虫. xihu-dinner

We also ordered the very traditional Shangainese dish, 烤麩 [kao fu], braised wheat gluten. It’s a cold dish that comes with braised bamboo shoots, black woodear, and sometimes shiitake mushrooms. On top of that, we had pumpkin chips, 煎饼 [jian bing] or fried Chinese crepes, and some mustard green rice soup. Rice soup differs from congee in that it isn’t boiled until it becomes mushy viscous; it’s cooked only until the grains are, and then taken and boiled (shortly) with soup and vegetables before serving. Our last dish was the stinky tofu stewed in a sour and hot pickle broth.

Definitely recommend Grandma’s House if you’re in XiHu. The food is well-priced, comes in large portions, and tastes just like homemade food. 🙂

The address for the branch in XiHu is:
马塍路6-1号, 近武林巷
6-1 Ma Cheng Lu, Xihu District

West Lake, Hangzhou, 2010

It was my first time flying business class! My mom managed to string together enough points to get us both seats in business on China Airlines. Ooh. I was ecstatic being able to finally enter the mystical 2nd level of a 747. Spacious legroom, fully-reclining seats, a whole menu of free alcholic and non-alcoholic drinks, and no small children. What a glorious 13-hour flight this was going to be. 

busnsclass

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Taiwanese Bento, 2012

The place 陳叔叔, or “Uncle” Chen, took us to was this tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant that served lunch sets, much like how a prix fixe menu works.

I must admit the salad was a little bit bizarre: a fruit salad with some tangy, mustard sauce with paprika sprinkled on top. Interesting but not the tastiest. On the flip side, the little plate of fried appetizers was tasty. There was fried “calamari”, seaweed balls, and fish balls. Pretty much anything fried is tasty.

So these were 3 of the 4 main courses that were ordered at our table of 4:

I had  焗烤飯 [ju kao fan], which is basically where you bake rice in an oven. There are several types of “baked rice”, but mine was kimchi fried rice topped with crispy mozzarella. The cheese was so gooey and I loved the slightly burned parts. 🙂 Finished that plate in a jiffy!

Uncle Chen had a sort of fried “ham” steak that was wrapped in scrambled eggs and seaweed, which sounds odd, but works out really well. It’s salty, it’s crispy on the outside, a little squishy on the inside because of the egg, and the drizzle of sweet mayo made everything work.

My mom had meatball hotpot with vermicelli; Chinese meatballs are called “獅子頭” [shi zi tou], or “lion’s head”. Vegetarian ones are usually made from tofu, sesame oil, and shiitake mushrooms. For a “獅子頭” dish, the meatballs are put into a clay pot after being deep-fried and stewed with vermicelli, napa cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, and whatever else is to your liking. Probably one of my favorite Chinese dishes in general and something I always order if I see it on a menu.

Dessert was a “pork sung” Swiss roll and brown sugar mochi. Yum! The Swiss roll was delightfully light and fluffy, and the “pork” sung ended up highlighting the sweetness of the cake, rather than detracting from its taste. Mochi was sticky sweet goodness.

We went bread-shopping later in the day at Wu Pao Chun‘s bakery, Hogan 哈肯舖.  He won the 2010 Bakery Masters (Les Masters de la Boulangerie) competition in France for his rice wine and lychee bread.

The triangular loaf with the swirly: “米釀荔香” [mi liang li xiang]. It’s actually phenomenal. Thin, crispy, sourdough crust; doughy, chewy inside; pieces of warm walnut and lychee. MMM.

If you’re in the area and are interested, Hogan Bakery has been busy expanding into a chain, so it’s already opened up 5 stores.

And I can’t not mention the mangoes in Taiwan. Heaven.

Mangoes from Taiwan are divine. This one was a peach and mango hybrid. Our entire living room was so aromatic for the few hours the mango was in our kitchen. The fragrance of peaches, honey, and flowers permeated the house. They’re so good because:
1) the skin is a lot thinner;
2) the meat is buttery smooth–like panna cotta smooth;
3) the juices are ambrosia

My mom’s other best friend from college knows that we love mangoes, so she bought us a whole case. Happiness!! These golden yellow ones are a different breed of mango; they’re smaller but tend to be even sweeter than the bigger mangoes. I think these are called “總統” mangoes, or “president” mangoes.

北投加賀屋, Kagaya Hot Springs

My mom’s friends decided to take us to the Radium Kagaya International Hotel for afternoon tea and some hot springs. The place is up in Beitou, near the base of the mountains. The rooms are reportedly USD $700-800 a night, which is insane!

Most hot spring resorts in Japan run about half that price and are almost unfailingly amazing and luxurious. Unfortunately, I personally didn’t feel that the Kagaya was worth its hefty price. I don’t recommend spending the night there, but $10-$15 per person to use the public hot springs is not a bad deal.

Although, the facilities weren’t as expansive or as well-planned as its counterparts in Japan. For example, one section of the hot spring was like a jacuzzi bed: you can lie down while getting a water massage. Except…none of the jets can reach you because they’re placed so far from where you’re lying down. The springs were bedded with super pointy stones, which was simply uncomfortable.

Even more importantly, the hot springs weren’t even that hot! Kind of disappointing.

Even so, it was nice feeling toasty and warm. Your skin is soft and supple, and to top it all off, you can sit down for some wonderful afternoon tea.

Thousand-layer crepe cake dusted with powdered sugar, crispy omelets served on baguettes, flan made in-house, and handmade, traditional Japanese mochi (green tea with red bean filling). Oh, and a small chestnut cake–it looks like light brown-skinned mochi. All very much delicate and equally delicious! Great coffee too.

Also, I thought the restrooms were really neat. I’ve yet to see bidets in places other than Asia; they’re toilets that wash and dry your butt for you after you’re done.Your bum must feels so clean after using them. You’re also in control of how strong the jet streams are, which jet streams you want to use, and putting the toilet lid up or down. So cool! There are buttons to shut the lid completely, just open the top, or open both cover and lid.

Angelina’s (now called Climontine) is one of my mom’s and my favorite bakeries. They make this amazing multigrain bread with pumpkin seeds, walnuts, cranberries. It’s fluffy and nutty and so damn good that you don’t need to pair it with any kind of spread. Reheating is optional–does taste better toasted though. Definitely worth noting. They also serve lunch and dinner, although I hear it can get to be a bit pricy.

If you want to try Kagaya out at some point:

日勝生加賀屋
Address: 台北市北投區光明路236號
or
No. 36, Guāngmíng Rd, Beitou District,  Taipei City, Taiwan 11246

Telephone: 886-2-2891-1111

For Angelina’s/Climontine:
克莉蒙汀麵包生活館
Address:台北市信義路四段149-1號
or
149-1, Xinyi Rd Sec 4, Taipei City

Telephone: 886-02-2706-7061

北平金廚蔬食料理, Chin Chu

Quick side:
There’s another 燒餅 / 油條 [sao bing you tiao] place that’s right around the corner from our apartment that I really like. This place has been family-run since I started going back to Taiwan a decade ago and I’ve seen the kids grow from teens to men! Crazy. Good food. 永和豆漿 [yong he dou jiang] is the name of the place–but don’t get it confused with all the places that also have that name! This one in particular is located near the intersection fo 信義路 [Xing Yi Road] and 安和路 [An He Road].

北平金廚蔬食料理, “Chin Chu” is a place I definitely recommend if you’re looking for vegetarian xiao long bao ‘小籠包’, or steamed soup dumplings.

My mom’s friends were kind enough to treat us to this awesome place. 🙂

Between the five of us, we split about 10 different dishes. All in huge proportions! This was more of the regular sit-in restaurant with nice tablecloths, plates and silverware, and servers in uniform.

Appetizer 1: “生菜包霞鬆” [sheng cai bao xia song]. 生菜, which means ‘raw vegetable’, points to the lettuce wrap, and 霞鬆 is the hot and ‘meaty’ part of the dish. Crushed 油條 (Chinese fried dough) brings in a nice crunchiness while the fake 蝦仁 [xia ren]–or ground shrimp–adds a creamy texture, and you have stir-fried, diced mushrooms thrown in for good flavor. The iceberg lettuce leaves were fresh, crisp, and cool. As a result, when you wrap the 霞鬆 in the lettuce, it really strikes a perfect balance between hot and cold, salty and naturally sweet, crunchy and soft. Get it!

Appetizer 2: 火腿卷餅 [huo tuei juan bing]. A turkey scallion pancake wrap, if you will. Veggie ham cut into thin slices, lightly stir-fried and peppered, paired with some fresh cucumbers, and wrapped into Chinese pancake, “餅” [bing]. 餅 is made from a mix of two different kinds of dough–oil and water. The result is something flaky, buttery, and all kinds of wonderful: perhaps a cross between a tortilla and puff pastry? If you’re familiar with Chinese scallion pancakes, 卷餅 comes pretty close to that, but they’re still slightly different.

Appetizer 3: 苦瓜炒鹹蛋 [ku gua chao xien dan]. Bitter melon stir-fried with salted duck egg yolk. So good. Green bitter melon is typically pretty lip-puckering, yet when stir-fried with salted duck egg yolk, the bitterness is gone. There was even a level of sweetness to the bitter melon.

There was also this dish called 蚵仔 [za e-ah]. “炸” is the word for fried, and “蚵仔” is Taiwanese for oyster. Vegetarian oyster is made using mushroom and seaweed, which are rolled up together into a ball and fried with basil; it’s then served with freshly-ground black pepper, white pepper, and salt. One of my favorite things to eat. The other things we ordered were also delicious, but the names of them now escape me! Sad.

We had some orange chicken, another 卷餅 dish with asparagus and sesame, and what I thought was the highlight of the meal: 絲瓜小籠包. 小籠包 [xiao long bao], a type of steamed dumpling, is a pretty common Chinese dish. Unfortunately, it’s almost never vegetarian. So this was the first time ever that I had been at a place that served vegetarian 小籠包. SO EXCITING.

The skin was paper thin and wonderfully chewy, and the moment I bit into the dumpling, all the juices from the 絲瓜 [si gua]–a soft green Chinese squash–burst into my mouth. I think I burned my tongue in the process, but it was so worth it. The 絲瓜 was sweet and tender…perfect. I could eat endless baskets of those things. Order the 絲瓜小籠包 if you ever go to this restaurant; you won’t regret it!

Restaurant info:
Name: 北平金廚蔬食料理
Address: 台北市士林區天母西路38巷3號, (天母西路與天母北路交叉口附近)
or
No. 3號, Lane 38, Tianmu West Rd, Shilin District, Taipei City, Taiwan 111
Phone: +886 2 2873 8680

It’s a little far out from Taipei, but worth the trouble!

Taipei Breakfast Time, 2012

First full day in Taiwan. My mom and I woke early so we could snatch up the freshest batch of Taiwanese breakfast food. Breakfast joints in China and Taiwan are vastly different from American ones like IHOP. They’re more like fast food joints. You order, you pay, you wait for your food, and you sit down at a hobbly-wobbly table with rusty plastic stools. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a spot right under the A/C on a hot day. What differentiates Taiwanese fast food is that the food is  fresh and made right in front of you. I think most places are family-owned, too.

My mom insisted on taking me here because this place has the best “燒餅” [sao bing] she has had in Taiwan.  燒餅 is a Taiwanese breakfast staple–it’s essentially a flat, flaky, sesame pastry. If you’ve ever had Chinese scallion pancakes, 燒餅 is similar to that. But flatter and in a rectangular shape. They bake it in a tandoori-like oven and fish it out with tongs when they’re nice and brown. What I love about dining in Taiwan is how cheap it is. Ordering a breakfast at McDonalds–burgers, fries, a drink–probably comes out to be at least $6 or $7. The same amount of food, or even more, in Taiwan costs about half of that. It’s awesome.

The Taiwanese breakfast sandwich consists of 油條 [you tiao], which goes between the 燒餅. 油條 is simply fried dough, not that much different from a donut or a beignet except that it’s more savory than sweet. But if eaten sweet, it’s usually dipped in 甜豆漿 [tian dou jiang], or sweet soymilk, or eaten with congee. My mom ordered some soymilk while I chose to get 米漿 [mi jiang], which is brown rice and peanut milk. Kind of like horchata.

Good 燒餅 fills your mouth with the smell of toasted sesame; the shell is baked golden and crunchy, and you can actually peel apart the inside layers of the 燒餅, like you could puff pastry dough. This place was pretty good. Nothing beats pastry straight out of the oven. The 油條 was pretty good too; fried to a crisp, but not airy inside and filled with bubbles ofo il.

Our bill came out to be 71 NTD, which is about $2.50 US. For two people. Cheap and delicious. What more could I ask for? This particular restaurant is right across from the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, if you’re ever interested in trying it out! 🙂

Taipei Eats, 2012

Our flight to Taiwan from Xi’An was around 10am, which meant we had to leave the hotel somewhere around 7:30. The buffet opened at 6; all of us who had early flights rushed through the doors as soon as they were open. It was really such a shame that we couldn’t sit down and enjoy the buffet–it was so good!

Literally straight-from-the-oven goodies! Muffins. Jelly donuts. Hot, crusty french breads. Giant pagodas made from chocolate and macaroon towers to marvel at. Cereal bar. Cereal is always good. Food heaven.

But wait there’s more! Fancy fresh fruit like Xinjiang pears, dragon fruit, mangoes, guava…it goes on. So many mangoes. Hands-down my favorite fruit. A salad bar with cold cut meats and imported cheeses. Endless bowls of sauces and dressings, Chinese and Western. Pretty much anything you could think of. A life-sized bread-cotta warrior. An egg-tree. There were a ton of things that weren’t even out yet because it was so early. After about 45-minutes of stuffing our faces, we shuffled back to our rooms, finished packing, and waved 再見 [zai jian] to China.

Some 5 hours later, we were in Taipei.

First stop: the 7-Eleven right around the corner from our apartment. The 7-Elevens in Taiwan the Asian person’s dream convenience store. Plenty of pretty bento box lunches, onigiri, fresh congee/rice porridge, fried rice and noodles…it’s essentially like a fast food restaurant. My favorite part of the Taiwanese 7-Elevens is the tea leaf eggs, or “茶葉蛋” [cha yie dan]. They’re stewed for hours in some magical combination broth of soy sauce, Chinese 5-spice (star anise, cloves, cinnamon, Sichuan peppercorns, and fennel seeds), and tea leaves.

My mom and I continued down the streets to 通化街夜市 [tong hua jie yie shi]–one of the many famous night markets in Taiwan. This had become our tradition since we started making almost annual trips to Taiwan after I started high school. If you want to talk about places with awesome nightlife, Taiwan is definitely one of those places. I always feel safe eating in Taiwan since all of the places are open-kitchen, so you can see exactly how your food is made.

What we always do in Taiwan the first night, without fail, is go to a small stinky tofu place by the name of 得記 [de ji]. This is one of the very few places left in Taiwan that serves 脆皮臭豆腐 [chuei pi chou do fu]: deep-fried stinky tofu. People who are unfamiliar with stinky tofu cringe at the idea of it, but good stinky tofu doesn’t actually smell stinky. Merely slightly pungent and fermented. 

And what makes deep-fried stinky tofu the best is because the fried outer-skin makes this loud crunch every time you bite in, whilst the inside remains soft and meaty. There’s also this brilliant trick of cutting into the tofu and injecting each tofu square with their special house-made sauce. Throw in some pickled cabbage and shredded carrots on the side, and you have the perfect midnight snack. “宵夜” [xiao yie] in Chinese. Their hot pots are also good; we got the spicy tofu pot. 

Also this is my favorite yogurt drink ever. Only found in Taiwan. A lassi and Greek yogurt hybrid. Very thick and creamy, but not to the point where it’s undrinkable.

Another place we never miss whenever we go to Taiwan is 東區紛圓 [dong qu feng yuan]. This is actually a must-go place for anyone who goes to Taiwan and is in Taipei. Just look at the line from both sides of the shop! Crazy. There are outdoor seating and 2 rooms of indoor seating. All the tables are always taken and full, all day, every day. A lot of people just end up standing and eating their shaved ice.

東區紛圓 is so popular because it makes the best taro and yam glutinous rice balls, “芋圓” [yu yuan in Mandarin, o-een in Taiwanese] and “地瓜圓” [di gua yuan in Mandarin, not sure about Taiwanese]. The rice balls are just part of the 20-something list of ingredients you can choose to put into your bowl of shaved ice. You can choose just 2 ingredients, or a whole bunch. What makes this place so great is that the ratio of ingredients to shaved ice is like 5:1. Not skimpy at all.

My mom and I always choose the taro and yam balls, grass jelly, fresh chunks of real taro, mung bean, and aiyu jelly. The fresh taro is killer. Sometimes we add red bean too, but not always. But there are tons of other things to choose from, and however you mix and match them, it always tastes awesome. When it’s 90-degrees and something like 70% humidity, a bowl of icy, sweet goods really hits the spot. Most of all, a giant bowl comes out to be $2!

Hai Di Lao, Beijing, 2012

So at this point in our tour–about 10 days in–my traveler’s diarrhea was really taking a toll on me. It had not stopped since our 2nd day in China. Touring in Xi’An grew progressively stressful as they day went on: more breaking out in cold sweat, doubling over in pain, and running back and forth between the tourist sites and the filthy public restrooms.

The super spicy and oily (but delicious) Xi An noodles and dumplings we had for lunch definitely didn’t help. It got pretty bad when we went to see the Terracotta Warriors and by the time we went to the Shaanxi History museum, it was unbearable. Half of the time we were at the museum was spent in restrooms bathed in the nauseating smell of warm urine and fecal matter.

One of the more interesting pieces I found was a butt-pot.  The panther-shaped  “tally”, or “符” [fu] was my favorite, though. According to the description, “a tally was a special token used by the emperor to transmit his orders and to confer military power upon his ministers. It is made of two halves, the left and the right. The right was kept in the Imperial Palace, while the left was held by commanders stationed elsewhere. Only when both parts were fitted together would the inscription on the tally be complete, and would officers accept the order as valid.” Thought the bronze duck-lantern piece was cool too.

More terracotta warriors! And giant, ancient Buddha shrine. Hundreds, if not thousands, of tiny Buddhas line the walls. There’s a possibility that this was from the Mogao Grottoes, but I unfortunately can’t find any information on it.

None of the Tylenol, Pepto Bismol, or funky-smellin’ Chinese medicine did anything. I drank, chewed, and swallowed pills, liquids, and herbal powder to no avail. But nothing was going to stop me from enjoying another spicy and oil-packed dinner!

We were prepared to dine at the most popular hot pot place in all of China: “海底捞火鍋” [hai di lao huo guo]. “火鍋”  is the word for “hot pot”. “海底” means ocean-floor. “捞” means to fish. So the name “海底捞” is basically saying that eating hot pot is like fishing, which it is! Delicious. The wait for a table was about 2 hours. Thankfully we had reservations. Whew!

Sauce bar with about 15 different kinds of sauces. Bunch of mixed sauces, chili, peanut, cilantro, parsley, peppercorn, vinegar, soy, sesame oil, and toona “香椿”. Toona tastes like a hybrid between garlic, scallion, and cilantro or parsley. Super flavorful; some may find it a bit strong, but it tastes amazing when you stir-fry rice with toona paste. Or make toona pancakes. We had what’s called a “鴛鴦鍋” [yuan yang guo], which is where one side is spicy and the other is a clear broth. The spicy side was essentially 60% oil, 40% water oil. Yay for clogged arteries! Tons of Sichuan peppercorns, red chilis, green chilis, scallions. I stopped being able to feel my mouth after the first bite.

The hot pot itself was good, but not great; what makes “海底捞火鍋” famous is its service. While you’re waiting in line for a table, you can ask for a manicure. Or a pedicure. Or a massage. All for free. You can also get free snacks and drinks. Your glass is always filled, your table always clean, and your plates always stacked with food. Our tour guide told us that one time someone complained about having lost their iPhone at “海底捞火鍋” and about a month or two later, that person received a completely new iPhone in the mail.

In our case, we asked to have our hot pot changed 3 times because we kept discovering seafood or meat at the bottom of the pot when we clearly told them we were vegetarian. And all the times they were forced to bring in a completely fresh hot pot, they did it so happily and warmly. Refreshing to see service with such good attitude! Chinese restaurants aren’t exactly known for good service. Hence, the popularity of “海底捞火鍋”.

The noodle chef was only 15-years-old! He’s been doing this since he was 8. Crazy.

Hot pot made us so full that my mom and I decided to go for a stroll afterwards. Xi’An’s night scene is so vibrant; music and people everywhere. Street food. Dancing. Tai Chi. Artists showcasing their work. Face-painting. Caricatures.

大雁塔” [da yien ta] is called “Giant Wild Goose Pagoda” and a very famous landmark in Xi’An. It was built during the Tang Dynasty, around 652 AD, and was under heavy renovation when we were in Xi’An. The gates were closed to the public at night, so we could only view it from afar. Mom and I entertained ourselves with the swaths of Chinese Zumba groups and of people learning martial arts littering the many squares in Xi’An.

Because Xi’An was the capital of China for several dynasties, it has a very historical and cultural landscape. There were entire avenues of fountains with sculptures of Chinese poets (like Li Bai or Wang Wei) and generals, or large stone scrolls with excerpts from famous Chinese manuscripts. All the street lights lining the street were Chinese lanterns with poems written on them. It was gorgeous.

Xi’An is like all of Chinese history and culture vacuum-packed into one metropolis. What was really cool was watching the calligraphers on the street use these 3-foot long brushes dipped in water to write Chinese in different Chinese calligraphy styles. There are nine styles in total: two are pictured above, “行書” [xing shu], a semi-cursive script, and “隸書” [li shu], a clerical script that’s commonly used in newspapers and advertisements. What penmanship!

Xi’An Terracotta Warriors, 2012

The Terra Cotta Warriors “兵馬俑” [bing ma yong] were a good 2-hour drive from the restaurant. When we got there it was midday and packed. Tourists everywhere. Mostly European, which was surprising to me. Many groups were French, like it was when we were at the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang.

There are 4 pits open to the public. Pit 1 has the majority of the terracotta army, which consists of 6,000 figures. No two soldiers are alike; each figure has unique facial features and expressions and build, with even slight differences in stance and pose. Amazing. Qin Shi Huang “秦始皇”, who was the first emperor of China, began building this entirely man-made necropolis for himself right after he ascended to the throne.

Most of the figures you see were actually pieced together by volunteers and/or employees of the Chinese government. When the tomb was first discovered, most of the figurines were destroyed and shattered into a bajillion pieces. A resident Terracotta Army expert explained to us that because Qin Shi Huang had wronged and killed so many people, when local farmers discovered his tomb, they ransacked the hell out of it in revenge. Fires were purposely lit to burn and ruin as many things as possible. Valuable pieces were smashed.

All the beautifully-sculpted soldiers you see are results of mind-bogglingly meticulous and tedious work that has been going on for decades.

This is pit 2. As you can see, most of the corridors still haven’t been fully excavated. Pit 2, however, is where you can see up-close some of the most spectacular warriors and horses. All of the 10,000+ soldiers and horses were made through an assembly line production. Moreover, all are precisely placed according to each soldier’s military rank and duty.

The detail was stunning. All terracotta soldiers were originally hand-painted with a myriad of colours: pink, red, green, blue, brown, black, white, and lilac. Unfortunately, the colours have faded with time. Some of the red, lilac, and green were still evident on the archer (on the left), especially in the back, where you can see the “string” used to “tie” his armor together.

The chariot took the cake though. The harnesses, the wheels, the painted horses, the rider, and the chariot itself were breathtaking to see in person and up close. Even more amazing was the fact that every piece was life-sized.  And though it’s a bit dark so you can’t really see it, the umbrella covering the rider was spectacular. It was like one of those beautiful, paper umbrellas you sometimes see geishas carrying in pictures, but made from bronze. All the hundreds of folds in the umbrella and the framework holding it up were simply impeccable.

After visiting the terracotta warriors we headed to our hotel. Ah, such a sweet change from the uncomfortable nights on the train! 

A view of Xi’An from the bus. We passed by several tombs of Chinese emperors on the way back. Our tour guide talked about the huge gender gap in China. Chinese culture (or rather, most Asian cultures) is one that is “重男輕女” [zhong nan qing nu]: there is heavy preference towards giving birth to sons as opposed to daughters. The one-child policy in China meant that a lot of families who had daughters ended up abandoning or aborting them. Karma is definitely taking its turn now that China has a serious shortage of women. There are about 3-4x’s as many males as there are females in China.

Chinese women’s position in society has also been elevated because of access to higher education and better jobs. Women are now are in this unprecedented position of being valued over boys. Women used to have to take whatever they could get in terms of suitors; now they can afford to be über picky about whom they choose to date. The tour guide joked that single Chinese women all require future/potential husbands and/or boyfriends to have the every single one of the following: handsome, smart, rich, loyal, truthful, has a car and home, has a stable job, can’t smoke or drink, well-educated, and above all, obedient.