Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Where the Streets Have Five Hundred, Ninety Seven Thousand and 34 Names

I'm in Xi'an. Haven't seen much of anything yet. Tomorrow I'm going to see the real draw, myriads of life size terracotta stone warriors which were buried with the emperor who unified China. Tonight, just taking 'er easy.

But while I'm doing so, thought I might mention a couple other unique characteristics I have discovered about China.

The first: streets do not maintain the same names. You might say, hey that's true everywhere. Drive a couple miles, the name changes. I'm talking blocks. Xiwu Lu becomes Lianhu Lu becomes Daqinq Lu becomes Afang Yilu. Or, in BeiJing -- the road that runs right outside The Forbidden City and Tien'anmen's Square is Xichang'an Jie right there. But go a few blocks east and it's Fuxingmennei Dajie, and then Fuxingmenwai Dajie; in the other direction, it's Dongchang'an Jie, then Jianguomennei Dajie then Jianguomenwai Dajie and then Jianguo Lu.

The funny thing is, you sort of get the hang of it. Each word you see above is a compound noun, and the add-ons are usually directions: Dongchang'an Jie and Xichang'an Jie are different because one runs to the west of the Forbidden City, and therefore uses the word for West (Xi...) while the other goes to the east (Dong). The same might be true with the nei/wai additions, although those aren't the words for north and south; still working that one out.

Now why they change the rest -- why does it go from Chang to Fuxing to Jianguo -- no idea.

I learned another unique Chinese practice this very day. I might have mentioned in passing that the other day I had scorpions. Pretty proud of that. Almost had a cricket, too, but the little bugger was too quick.

Anyway, my stomach did not find the whole scorpion thing quite as cool as I did. No serious digestive issues to this point, but lots of little blips on the radar, if you will, maybe the occasional dashboard warning light. And today as we approached our landing in Xi'an, I found my stomach a wee bit upset. I could see that there was definitely a restroom in my immediate future.

When I got to one, I rushed into the stall, pretty ready to engage in the business at hand, only to find a hole in the ground. No paper, no toilet...just a hole. A very nice hole, actually, ceramic, with treads on either side on a typically clean Chinese floor. But that was it.

The ancient Chinese, I am learning, were very interested in signs that might indicate whether the current times were to be auspicious. I read somewhere that a musician who played one note wrong in the presence of the Emperor might in certain circumstances be put to death, because his mistake was a bad omen. (And we think we get performance anxiety.)

As much as I want to be adventurous, this was not sort of the path I had planned. I think I feel comfortable calling it definitely inauspicious. Definitely.

Nevertheless, in that moment of need, I have to admit I hopped right into that saddle. And let me tell you, it was quite a ride.
You Americans and your toilets -- I'll never go back.

How it all worked out... well, that's another story.

Last but not least, a shot from the subway this morning. We were wall to wall people, pressed tight as you possibly could be. It was amazing.

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