Buying Useless Items in Xi'an

My dad had only been in China five days when we were briefly separated from him in the backstreets of Xi'an Muslim Quarter. Separated long enough for him to get his hands on a tiny terracotta warrior for 10 yuan. We forgave him his indiscretion and warmed him to consult us before future purchases.

The Muslim Quarter hadn't changed much since Yann and I had visited two years earlier, although a large sign now hung over the main entrance you "Welcome to Islamic Food Street" and way more vendors and waitresses seemed to be sporting the Hui Muslim caps, part of the new Islamic-themed tourist uniform? Along the backstreets are rows and rows of souvenir shops selling mesmerizing quantities of similar knick-knacks, including the ubiquitous terracotta warriors in various colours and sizes. I personally find it quite difficult to walk through the lanes without buying anything. So what if they're brand new, mass produced items that the vendors carefully antiquified with a bit of scraping and dirtying? They do a good job of making them look like unique little treasures...until you see them a thousand times. Despite ridiculous opening offers, you can still come away with a good deal, with a lot of haggling and the mandatory "I'm walking away now, I'm not interested" technique.

On our first afternoon in Xi'an my dad and I hit Xi'an's most famed tourist attraction, The Army of Terracotta Warriors (or as the Chinese like to call them The Terracotta Warrios). In about 200 BC, Emperor Qin, terrified of the afterlife has thousands of life sized soldiers built to escort his soul into heaven. Wooden roofs housing the army eventually collapse and the tomb of now crumbled soldiers is lost for over two thousand years. Until, in 1976, when farmers stumble upon them while digging a well. Now, thirty years later, you can visit the three pits of warriors, most still in pieces, some having been painstakingly reassembled (an amazing work, still in progress). Or, better yet, you can get the autograph of one of the farmer discoverers. As long as you buy the 20$ souvenir book. I was more impressed by the site the second time around, the first time I had thought that the entire 5000-strong army was still intact, and was shocked by the pits full of crushed body parts. This time I was ready, as I was ready for the army of terracotta warrior salespeople waiting for us when we left the site. All armed with the 5-piece set; horse, archer, general, foot soldier and Emperor Qin himself. Here's how to buy a set (if you really must):

salesman: Hallo 10 yuan, 10 yuan, very cheapa, hallo hallo (holding box)
Emilie: 10 yuan? You mean 10 yuan for a piece, how much for the whole box?
salesman: 12 dolla
Emilie: 12 dollars?
salesman: ok ok 12 euros
Emilie: huh?
salesman: ok ok 100 yuan
Emilie: 10 yuan
salesman: 50 yuan
Emilie: 10 yuan
salesman: 20 yuan, last price
Emilie (walking away): 10 yuan
salesman: ok ok
Emilie takes out 10 yuan from wallet
salesman: ok ok 50 yuan for horse
Emilie hands over 10 yuan, salesman smiles and hands over box.

I actually bought the set on my dad's behalf who had concluded that he really needed a box of terracotta warriors, since it only cost 10 yuan, and he had already paid 10 yuan for a single, smaller warrior without the complimentary box. As with all purchasers of terracotta warriors, the minute he had it in his hands, he wondered why the hell he had bought it in the first place. Moments after the first purchase we were besieged by another groups of salespeople, these ones even more persistent. One of them latched on to my dad, he tried to explain to her that he already had a set. Then she whipped out her secret weapon: the bronze coloured warriors. As she negotiated incoherently "10 yuan, 10 yuan, 12 euros...", my dad became more and more attracted to this lovely bronze set, as I could only stand back and watch in horror. For 6 yuan, he was now the proud owner of a second set of terracotta warriors, and was now averaging a respectable 8 yuan/box. Being of superior quality, if packed at the bottom of your bag, these warriors will end up looking exactly as they do in real life (pre-reconstruction). Although my dad seemed somewhat perplexed and discouraged that a sizable portion of his bag was now being occupied by terracotta warriors, he had nothing on Yann and I. The first time we hit Xi'an we left with a large quilt, half a dozen little red books, 5 cloisonnes boxes, two fake coral necklaces, four mao caps, two mao suits (one black, one blue) and a whole lot more crap that we didn't need (but only one box of terracotta warriors). We sent my dad off to visit some of Xi'an's sites on his own and he managed well, finding both the big and small wild goose pagodas, despite asking around for the big bird palaces (or something like that). On our last day in Xi'an the three of us hit the city walls. I finally got Yann on a tandem bicycle and we raced my dad around the 13 kilometers of wall. Xi'an's large Hui Muslim community offers great food alternatives, especially for rookies to Chinese cooking. At breakfast we replaced our pork dumplings with lamb or beef ones. We dined on roasted lamb covered in cumin and chilli two nights in a row, accompanied by naan bread, also covered in cumin and toasted on the outdoor grill. Sadly, we couldn't get any beer with that. The Muslim Quarter is a lively nighttime dining spot and is packed with people even on weekdays. Most of the restaurants have piles of roasted lamb from which you select a piece and pay for it by weight, it is grilled in front of you. One night we decided to attempt a hotpot dinner at an outdoor restaurant. Hotpots are a Chinese fondue, you sit around a big bowl of boiling broth, select various vegetable and meat skewers, cook them in the broth, dip them in sauce and enjoy. Unfortunately, they are problematic for tourists, due to the sheer number of items you can be overcharged for. The price of every item; broth, sauce, skewers, napkins, fuel, skewers, has to be asked in advance to avoid ridiculous final bills. The manager of this hotpot restaurant seemed to follow the usual pattern and it was difficult to get him to tell us any prices at all. At the end of the meal when a waitress added up the bill, he flew across the restaurant, trying to get her to add something to our bill. Thankfully she wasn't too quick and stood there looking confused (we had already worked our the price of our meal anyways). The usual friendly exchange ensued (my dad had no problems getting into the spirit of things), and we stormed away, having paid the original price quoted by the waitress.

The mood was sombre, until we heard it in the distance, the happy birthday song. The song used by Chinese street cleaners to announce the impending havoc they are about to wreak on innocent street vendors and restaurants. In another triumph of Chinese planning, the street cleaner is scheduled to pass down "Islamic Food Street" at the height of dinner time. The meat is roasting on the outdoor grills, the vendors have their items carefully lined up along the sidewalk, diners pack the streets picking out the perfect lamb leg, and the street cleaner blasts every last one of them with water. But not, without a happy birthday warning. As we watched the cooks and vendors literally diving out of the way, barbecues being soaked (along with the meat cooking on them), we couldn't help but cheer up a bit. Too bad the street cleaner wasn't passing in front of the hotpot restaurant.


mom said...

This was a great blog!

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