Greetings from Xi’an, or as I’ve come to call it, the “Cleveland of China.” I kid, I kid… Xi’an is alright – and really, this is just a test to see if any of my Northern Ohio-bred friends are reading this. While Zibby and I, like just about everybody else traveling through Xi’an, came here primarily to see the Terra-Cotta Warriors, the real draw ended up being the fantastic street food in the city’s Muslim Quarter.
Xi’an is the historical capital of China and the terminus of the Silk Road, but its landscape today is dominated by tangled highway interchanges, cranes constructing blocks upon blocks of boxy, Soviet-style apartment buildings and Hyundai dealerships (and smog, lots of smog). The Muslim Quarter, with its narrow, tangled alleyways full of colorful vendors hawking everything from pig heart kebabs to bobbleheads of famous Chinese leaders (Maobbleheads?), is the only real clue to the city’s rich, imperial past.
As for the Terra-Cotta Warriors, you basically pay $30 to fight hordes of aggressive, camera-wielding Chinese tourists to catch a brief, distant glimpse of decaying statues of medieval Chinese warriors. Oh, and also for the opportunity to witness what may be the largest and most impressive collection of over-priced tourist crap this side of South of the Border (“HELLO! HI! DO YOU WANT YOUR NAME WRITTEN IN CHINESE ON A GRAIN OF RICE??? FOR YOU, VERY GOOD PRICE! CHINESE PRICE FOR YOU!”). Call me a cynic, but I was much happier feasting on mutton soup and haggling over the price of Tiger Balm in the Muslim Quarter. God, I love haggling.
But I digress. You came here for Beijing, and tales of organ-harvesting cabbies.
Those that read my previous post here may have (correctly) inferred that I wasn’t the biggest fan of South Korea. I’m glad I went and experienced it, and I did get to meet some great people there, but it’s just not my favorite place at the end of the day (in fact, I’d say I prefer the sights and sounds of scenic Cleveland to South Korea). I was eager to move on to Beijing, and China in general, and it has yet to disappoint.
One of the first things I heard about Beijing – courtesy of a Korean friend, mind you – was that we’d better watch out when we were taking cabs late at night, because those sociopathic Chinese cab drivers were known to take you out to a remote area after you’ve had a few drinks, drug you, and cut out your kidney for resale on the black market – leaving you for dead in the process.
Okay, sure, I get it, I thought sarcastically. Next to Korea, China is full of uncivilized cretins who will literally harvest your organs for a profit. This is some next-level xenophobia right here; racist Americans could really learn something from their Korean counterparts when extolling the dangers of keeping the border open to them slippery, job-stealin’ Mex-ee-cains.
Well, as it turned out, our Korean friend (who is not remotely racist or narrow-minded, I might add) wasn’t kidding. Our first night in Beijing, we got dinner with an old friend of Zibby’s, who’s Beijing born-and-bred, and acted as our unofficial tour guide for much of the week. The following exchange ensued:
“So, get this. When we told our friend in Seoul that we’d be heading to Beijing from there. She suddenly got really serious and gave us this somber warning about not taking cabs late at night, especially when slightly inebriated.”
“Haha, really? What did she say?”
“It’s almost too ridiculous to repeat, I’m embarrassed to even say it… She told us that – no joke – there are cab drivers here that will take you out to the boondocks late at night, drug you, and cut out your kidney while you’re unconscious. Crazy, right?”
“Oh! No, that totally happens. I mean, it’s not common – but it actually happened to a friend-of-a-friend not too long ago.”
“Are you kidding? Are they OK now?”
“No, they died.”
So anyway, while my Mandarin is still extremely limited, I now know the following three phrases: “Hello,” “Thank you,” and “Please sir, for the love of God, do not take my kidney. I have my whole life in front of me and so much left to give to the world!”
If nothing else, this made for quite the adrenaline rush anytime I got into a cab in Beijing.
As for the city itself, I loved it. The people are all incredibly friendly, and it’s not uncommon for somebody to approach you and ask to take a picture. Me being a white guy over six feet tall, it’s pretty much assumed that I’m either in the NBA or a movie star. Quite the ego trip, really, and it may finally be undoing years of emotional scarring suffered as the result of my being the only kid in the locker room without armpit hair. So take heart, 12 year-old self, for someday you’ll be “big in China.”
Anyway, I’ve probably babbled enough for one post here. I’ll have to save further topics, like spending the weekend in a Chinese family’s home, Taylor Swift diplomacy, and thoughts on the propensity (and eerily rhythmic soundtrack) of public spitting in China for another post. We’re off to Shanghai tonight via a 16-hour sleeper train. Here’s to hoping our cabin-mates aren’t snorers, and don’t have night terrors.