2017
04.30

3 GIRLS FROM SHANGHAI

SYNOPSIS:  About pagodas, an interesting bus ride, and about stumbling into the liveliest street life in Xian known as “Muslim Street”.

Why they are called Wild Goose Pagodas is beyond me, but there they are:  The Big Wild Goose Pagoda and the Little Wild Goose Pagoda.  They are a must for every visitor of Xian, and are only two of the truly old treasures the city still boasts.  The easy way around in town is to take a taxi and that’s what I did.  It saves time and does not cost the world.  You click in at 8.50 yuan (or the equivalence of about $1.50) and before the meter is actually ticking onward, you have passed quite a distance.  I have never paid more than $3 for any ride within the Old Town.

To my surprise, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda is part of a big, active Buddhist Temple.  There are two abbeys and a sizable number of practicing monks who live on the premise.  But I have the distinct feeling that this operation is run by the Chinese government.  They most likely collect the hefty entrance fee of $8 to visit the temple.  I wonder how much, if any, goes to the monks.  And I wonder how “real” these monks are.  The Dalai Lama is nowhere represented. In China he is no longer considered the head of Tibetan Buddhism.    

Nothing, except for the pagodas, looks old.  Those, however, are very old!  One dates from the 7th, the other from the 9th century. There aren’t many of those around in the world.  Most fascinating to me were some historic photographs on display that showed the development of the two sites from the early 19th century onward.  Less than 100 years ago, the pagodas stood within little village communities.  Now, they are the centerpiece of two sizable parks and are dwarfed by a 30+ million people megatown!  Entrance to the park of the little pagoda is free.  The park is open to the public and there is no active Buddhist monastery attached to it. 

Access to the pagodas themselves cost extra, and many people opt out of the rather exhausting experience to climb these towers, and the expense that goes with it.  I had to do it, if for nothing but the spectacular city views one has from either one’s roofs.  The little pagoda is so strenuous to climb that a big warning sign tries to deter people; if you are over 65 you will not even be permitted up.  I had to show my ID to have my age checked. The nerve!  There are some very fit 65 year-olds who should be the judge of attempting this adventure, not some ticket clerk.

A storm that destroyed the 14th and 15th level of the small pagoda left only a small area at the top intact.  You now have to pull yourself up by some metal bars to climb out of a manhole-sized opening.  Lucky me, I was the only one up there.  There could be room for about 5 or 6 people.  That was a spectacular moment, there were spectacular views; that was worth the climb.

At the little pagoda park, two people had set up an enterprise that reminded me of Shinto Temples in Japan.  There, you purchase a printed good fortune which you tie to a tree at the temple grounds.  Shinto belief has it that the tree spirit will either prevent a bad fortune from coming true or add power to a good fortune that is tied to its branches.  Here, you could purchase a blank red tag, write a wish onto it and tie it to the branch of an age-old tree.  Or you could purchase a number of strikes on a drum which would ring in your faraway lover’s ears.  I did not want to test that one only to be disappointed, so I opted for the wish-tag. 

Somewhere I had heard that it would be hard to catch a taxi in the afternoon, as drivers change shifts.  Why on earth would they all have to change shift at the same time is a good question, and why there would not be entrepreneurs who would want to fill exactly that gap, is another one.  But perhaps, these are questions driven by a capitalist mindset.  I experienced firsthand the impossibility of catching a taxi after visiting the big pagoda.  Several taxis actually stopped, but when I told them my destination, the answer was that they could not take me since they had to go home.  How did I know that?  After all, I don’t speak Chinese. 

Well, three young girls visiting from Shanghai were in the same situation as I was.  We were heading in the same direction.  For efficiency’s sake we had decided to team up.  They spoke some English.  Eventually, they managed to flag down an unmarked car that was willing to give us a ride.  Due to their smartphone savvyness, they directed me to a city bus which would take me from there to my next destination.  On the bus however, a helpful young lady who inquired about my whereabouts, started to tell me that I was on the wrong bus.  Who to believe?  Just as she had convinced me that I was on a wild goose chase — haha, I actually was, as I was looking for the Little Wild Goose Pagoda — I got off and… found myself exactly in the right spot, a block away from the pagoda.  Lucky me, and good for the Shanghai girls!

Riding the bus was a fun experience.  I did not have exact change, 1 yuan, or the equivalence of 15 cents.  I was willing to put in 5 yuan, or 80 cents, but the driver was not about to have that.  For a while he tried to have me wait for a person with change.  But everyone who entered had a bus pass.  When I had to leave and once again tried to put in my 5 yuan — after all, I could not be a free loader — he insisted that I get off the bus without paying anything.  Can you believe that!

It was so much fun riding the bus that after my visit of the little pagoda, I chanced another one.  I had read somewhere that #6 was going past the Drum Tower and indeed it was.  And if it hadn’t, I would have had a 1 yuan sight-seeing tour.  It was evening by now and I saw one of those Uighur family restaurants serving those delicious noodle dishes I had eaten in Urumqi.  Had I only known that I was literally one block away from the most amazing food street, I might have held out for a more exotic treat.  Just by chance, circling the Drum Tower, I stumbled on “Muslim Street.  It is designated a cultural treasure by the Chinese government, if you can fathom that.  It obviously comes to life at night.  This was a treat for the eyes and a challenge for the ears.  Hundreds of people were already filling the pedestrian zone and dozens of vendors were out-shouting each other praising their wares or foods.  You could observe entire goats being stripped of their meat, chilies being grounded under a huge grinding stone.  And that was just the beginning.  Stores were selling souvenirs and high-end Miao jewelry.  The Miao are another minority known particularly for their elaborate silver head-dresses worn by brides.  The fun on Muslim Street was endless.  I think I took more photos than all day elsewhere combined.  But it was dark and I did not want to use my flash, so many of the images leave much to be desired.  But I hope you still can catch some of those vibes.

Don’t miss it if you ever go to Xian.  The most eerie thing for me was, that as I was strolling the street, slowly, the memories of 16 years ago surfaced.  I had been here before.  I had even bought a piece of jewelry at the Miao store which I still treasure.  And once I came upon him, I even remembered seeing him 16 years ago.  In the very same spot:

At the end of the street, a lone man danced frantically in the middle of a dark, little park area to the tune of a little radio. There was no light, no more food vendor, no more action.  He was all by himself.  Not even a single spectator had gathered around him.  What was he doing there?!  As I came closer, I could not believe my eyes.  The man had no feet; only two stumps, enlarged at the bottom almost like a horse’s hoof.  The wild gesturing of his arms helped him to keep his balance.  And as if that was not enough of a curse, he was blind, too.  It was just way too painful to watch him.  I was glad to see a big bucket in front of him with lots of bills in it.  Who wouldn’t want to at least add to that!

That lone dancer weighed on me all the way home.  For more than 16 years, he had been doing the same old dance; most likely night after night.  How old was he?  Perhaps, my age?  He would never be able to do anything else in his life.  But despite all of this misery, he had found a way to support himself.  But what a way!

I am so lucky, so privileged, so healthy.  Why are some of us so burdened with challenges and others seem to get off easy?  It’s the million dollar question and to me, there is no God, no answer, no nothing that could explain this.

Thinking of those who won’t have a good night tonight, or perhaps, ever!

4 comments so far

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  1. I visited the Great Mosque in Shian about six years ago. Not off limits at all. The most striking aspect of it is that it looks like a one-story Buddhist temple.

  2. Oh, that man…the randomness of the universe? I don’t know which is worse: to think a God who is supposed to be loving would allow, for his own unknown-to-us reasons, someone to have such misfortune OR that the Universe is random and the great wheel spins and stops who knows where.

  3. Hallo Elisabeth,

    Yesterday I got home from a quick visit to my friends in Texas and on Wednesday I set off from the UK to the Greek Island of Lesbos to begin trip through Europe (& hopefully visit your family in Dresden on the way).

    Muslim Street is lovely, isn’t it! I was looking out for your description of the five tranquil courtyards of the Great Mosque; have I missed it? Worse still, is it now off-limits to visitors?

    • The Great Mosque was so much part of my itinerary. And then… I ran out of time. I don’t even know if it is, or isn’t off limits now. Darn, do I have to come back again?