Sunday, July 26, 2009


As I mentioned in an earlier post, the DSIC program students and teachers headed to Xian for our mid-term long weekend. The former capital of several Chinese dynasties and a trading center on the Silk Road, Xian remains one of China’s most important and interesting cities.

Friday evening, we took a bus to the Beijing-West train station, tickets in hand, and waited to board. I realize that it’s not tremendously original to state that China has a lot of people, but that single observation monopolized most of my thoughts for the hour we stood in line. Try to picture Grand Central Station, except not as attractive, with the entire Chinese population of the Tri-State Region crammed inside, plus one Chinese-language program’s worth of bewildered Americans.

one small corner of the station

Fortunately, we had soft bunks, as opposed to soft seats, hard bunks, or hard seats—the other options. Each compartment contained four beds, a trash can, a silk rose, and a view of Jonathan meditating on his future:

view from my bed

Ten hours and several interesting conversations later, we arrived in Xian, where we were greeted by our guide Helen (who, despite her unnerving habit of constantly referring to herself in the third person, Helen was helpful and informative). After dropping our bags off at the hotel, we walked to nearby Buddhist pagoda.

After lunch, we drove about an hour to the site of the Terracotta Army. Incidentally, my family and I went to the “Guardians of China’s First Emperor” exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science earlier this summer to view the largest display of Terracotta Army artifacts ever to travel to the United States. In some ways, seeing this temporary exhibit, although much abridged, was a more pleasant experience compared to visiting the museum in Xian; at HMNS, the warriors, horses, and artifacts were arranged to heighten aesthetic appeal, complete with customized stands and lighting against ink-colored walls, and strategically interspersed by text that helped establish the historical context. On the other hand, to see rows upon rows of terracotta warriors, weapons, and horses at the original excavation site was awe-inspiring. I was simultaneously reminded of the Beijing-West train station and my favorite “demotivational” poster quote, originally referring to the Pyramids:

“Achievement- you can do anything you set your mind to when you have vision, determination, and an endless supply of expendable labor.”

Sunday morning, we rented bikes at the main southern gate of Xian’s city wall, which forms a complete 11.9 km ring around the city center. It took us about an hour to bike clockwise on the wall back to the southern gate.

Jared and me with our tandem

Xu laoshi and some second-year students

After returning our bikes, we headed to the Muslim Quarter, where we visited the Great Mosque of Xian. The mosque is a well-preserved architectural gem, an elegant combination of Middle Eastern, Central Asian, and Chinese influences. The surrounding Muslim Quarter, however, has become a rather gaudy showcase cramped with shopkeepers peddling Chairman Mao t-shirts and fake Gucci wallets, a shame when considering the rich history of Xian and its Muslim population.

After a delicious hot pot/shabu-shabu dinner, we said goodbye to Helen and boarded a train back to Beijing.