Thursday, October 22, 2009

On the road to Xi'an

Luoyang's a little known city, unless you're into kung fu - the Shaolin Temple, home of kung fu, is not so far away. We've stopped off here on the way to Xi'an to have a look at the Longmen Caves, a UNESCO site of buddhist carvings and sculptures set into cliff walls along a river. The caves date from the 400's AD but the carvings have had a torrid time of it, what with anti-Buddhist movements of the past, theft by Western collectors, and then zealous Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Our guidebook describes them as ravaged. So it's a bit of a shock to find the entrance fee is about 11 quid each (no discount for holders of fake student cards either). It's a lovely sunny day when we get there and quite frankly, I'm not that bothered about looking at a few headless Buddhas. I'm reminded of a moment in my youth when on holiday in Scotland with my family I decided not to get out of the car to watch salmon leaping at nearby falls. I'd seen salmon leap before and pointed out that "when you've seen one salmon leap, you've seen them all". This comment provoked merciless ribbing from my father. If he made the suggestion to me again I'd go eagerly to watch this wonder of Nature. But getting back to the Buddhas - well, Gayle is keener than I, so we don't have to toss a coin to decide who goes in. While she wanders through the galleries and into some of the newly-built temples, I practise a few kung fu moves in the gardens.
We're staying in our first Chinese youth hostel here. It's in an office block near to the bus station and we appear to be the only punters. The bedrooms are big and comfy, but can't quite disguise the original purpose of the building. I half expect a secretary to appear with a sheaf of papers from the bathroom. There's an old part of the city that's had a slight makeover i.e. they've repointed the walls and painted the drum tower. Red lanterns are dutifully hung from the shopfronts along the main street. But it's not so touristy. A man with a street stall selling hot pork sandwiches tempts me. Gayle waits while I demolish my food. Only a little while later does she ask me if I saw what he chopped into the butty. I hadn't seen. "Pig's snout", she tells me, a little too cheerily. It may be coincidence, but I don't feel too good for the next few days.
We walk too much. We're just getting used to the spread of the cities. There's a Carrefour on our map, so we detour in search of fresh croissants, pain au chocolat, real coffee. Ha! On arrival it takes us twenty minutes to find something we think is edible. Where's the Rocquefort??? Where are the baguettes? There is lots of tofu and dried food and pot noodles and obscurely flavoured items like beef cookies, kiwi fruit crisps, red bean and coconut yoghurt. But there is fruit yoghurt and, on a tiny display of imported foods (pasta, jam, chocolate spread) I find the treasured coffee. Joy of joys. We've also become regular buyers of sugared puffed wheat, which is sold as a snack food in tiny packets. We can buy milk everywhere, so it makes for an easy cheap breakfast. And now there's real coffee too.
The city is fairly clean. So far, most of where we've been has been clean - cleaner than Manchester at any rate. At all hours of the day there are street sweepers in orange day-glow jackets keeping the pavements and roads spotless. There are litter bins everywhere, marked for recycling. There are also a large number of scruffy old folk who rummage these bins and look like they do most of the recycling. It would seem that anyone older than 40 has had a particularly rough deal of it in China - born into the chaos of the new People's Republic and Mao's dreadful policies like the Great Leap Forward and then too old now to really enjoy the fruits of the development of the country in the last twenty years. Saying that, working in a factory or on a construction site here can't be much fun, but the older people certainly look the poorest and most neglected of society.

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