Monday, July 16, 2007


I'm back at "home" in Tianjin after a weekend in Xi'an. The trip was a very busy one: from our departure on Friday at 6 am until our return to Tianjin around 1 am on Monday, the weekend was a whirlwind of terracotta warrios, shards of pottery on exhibit behind glass, and other such ancient things.

Xi'an is a smallish city by Chinese standards (about six million people) and is the traditional Chinese capital. The original city wall along with several beautiful old temples and towers in the downtown area are lit up at night, giving the city a festive feel.

I wanted to write about some funny and also frustrating observations I made this weekend. Scott's online journal ( has a more detailed account of the trip itinerary. :)

Elderly people in China like to sing and dance together outside at night.
While walking around on our own Friday night, Scott and I stumbled across a large group of elderly Chinese gathered in a square in front of the beautifully lit city wall. Wielding decorated fans and brightly colored umbrellas, everybody marched around the square to the beat of a drum in a seemingly random series of steps. They maintained deadpan, serious expressions while weaving around and around, waving their fans and umbrellas. Nearby, there were several groups of people singing traditional Chinese songs together. Everybody was out, just enjoying the night air and the pretty lights.

Yesterday, I asked my Chinese teacher about this tradition, and she said the older people in Tianjin do the same thing. In fact, her daughter likes to tease her by asking, "Mom, when you get old, are you going to dance around with a fan, too?"

Chinese tourist attractions are not very attractive.
The terracotta warriors, or "terracotta warriors-horses," as our tour guide David kept calling them, were quite impressive. However, the way in which they were displayed was not. From what I've seen so far, the Chinese tourism industy makes no effort whatsoever to make attractions attractive. For example, the museum holding the terracotta warriors consisted of three stations, tantalizingly entitled "Pit 1," "Pit 2," and "Pit 3." Pit 1 had a great display of intact warriors and horses, standing in their long lines just like I had imagined them. Pits 2 and 3, however, had just a couple of dozen broken warriors and a whole lot of dirt. It really looked as if immediately after uncovering the warriors, all archaeologists were dismissed and the museum was opened the very next day.

Another stop on our trip were the Huaqing Hot Springs , the site of much merrymaking by a 700 A.D. emperor and his favorite concubine. The springs and surrounding grounds were beautiful indeed, but again, they just didn't live up to the potential that anyone with a little bit of tourism know-how would have been able to extract. The pools in which the emperor and his concubine used to bathe were on display, but they looked as if they'd just been left to their own devices for the past 1300+ years to mature into their current states: dried- up, dirty, and crawling with bugs.

Travel agencies like to draw their unsuspecting charges into tourist traps.
The tourism industry here is all about the guanxi (connections): the Chinese travel agent's top priority is not serving the customers, but instead taking them to expensive tourist traps in hopes of receiving kickbacks from their purchases. The entire day Sunday was spent visiting such places.

David (the tour guide) took us to a "jade factory," which turned out to be a government-owned store with ridiculously high prices (although, "just for us," there was a 40% dicount). Even including the the so-called discount, a small bracelet embedded with five small pieces of jade cost $2000; a chunk of fool's gold cost $100; and a Koko-sized jade sculpture of an elephant sold for $25,000.

A stop at a museum and a couple of hours later, David took us to yet another souveneir shop, promising it was "where all the locals go." Predictably, it turned out to be a clone of the first "jade factory" with one difference: this store boasted a 40% discount... again, "just for us."

The trip had a happy ending. Despite wide-spread frustration with his "guiding," David won back the hearts of most the group when he took us to a four- star hotel for a buffet dinner... which included custom-grilled steaks, perfect French fries, and American-style spaghetti. Ok- I take it all back- the trip was amazing! :)

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