Last week we went into Xi’an and saw the Terracotta Warriors. It is one of the must sees in China and many tourists flock there yearly. The city itself is a mix of modern and what many people are in search of… ‘the real China’. What is THE real China? Is it not all real? I guess what people mean and are in search of is the old ideas and ways of life that are slowly being lost as the country accepts more Western ways, ideas and want for materialistic goods -much of which is the same as us Westerners want.
The main streets were modern, clean, wide paved thoroughfares with many lanes of traffic. The shops lining the streets included names and brands you would see in any western city. Turning off the main streets was like stepping into a portal of time, back 10 or 20 years, or into a totally different city, country, world. It would be easy to miss if not for a wrong turn and the lack of a good map and proper directions. The streets here were cracked, full of potholes and broken. Many were covered with packed stone or mud and dirt. Vendors set up tables or blankets to sell their wares to passers-by right along the street or in a basic shop. The shops were rectangular plain tiled holes in the wall. No fixtures or frills, just a space for a table to set up and hold the few basic necessities needed to run the stand. Turning onto a side street as we were in search of our hotel felt like we were invading or trespassing where we should not go. It reminds me of the line from the Wizard of Oz “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” All this was tucked away in back streets and alleys while the main streets gave a totally different impression. We certainly did not fit here on the back streets and we certainly stood out. I felt like I did not belong. We garnered a lot of attention as we wandered along in search of our street and next turn. At first the hair on the back of your neck prickles and you worry about your safety. We soon realized we were in no harm, but a point of interest and wonder. They were just as curious about how we looked as we were about what we saw. Some just carried about their business and did not stop and stare while others looked, stared or tried to make contact with a smile or hello.
I tried to soak up all the sights, sounds and smells around me. It felt like I was in a dream as I saw how others lived. The bad odors, filth and poorly maintained homes were a way of daily life for these people. Behind high brick walls you occasionally got a glimpse of broken bricks, rocks and trash filling the empty spaces of an abandoned and partially torn down building. The dark tanned and wrinkled skin of its inhabitants showed the life of many days and time that they spent in the sun working. This was a great contrast to the bright coloured umbrellas trying to provide some relief from the sun and the colours and patterns of scarves and fruit that were being sold.
Stray dogs that were dirty and alone ran along the street looking for a morsel of food. Smoke filled the air as open fires with coal smoked over a grill cooking meat on sticks. People sat at little make shift restaurants with small tables and folding stools. They were crowded as people crammed into any available sidewalk space to get noodles, stews and meats. The meats hung on hooks in unrefrigerated shops and spinning fans with a ribbon spun over them trying to deter flies.
Petty cabs were more available than taxi’s and they would bump us along the back roads so we had many glimpses of the life that we rarely see anywhere in the world, or in Shanghai. The life long traditions and ways of life are still alive and well in the back streets and alleys. I feel like I was allowed to share in a life style few rarely see… many probably will miss. Often we travel in our western bubble -seeing the main sights, but missing the people, cultures and back streets where real every day life and culture takes place. It is easy to miss, but all you just have to open your eyes, your mind and look to where few get to see.
Stay tuned for more…