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Thursday, April 27, 2017

On a Wild Goose Chase for Enlightenment

Group in front of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an, China


Xi'an - a mixture of old and new
We’re awakened about an hour before the train is due to arrive in Xi’an.  Xi’an is the birthplace of ancient Chinese civilization.  The area has been continually occupied for over 3000 years which is older than Baghdad.  It served as the capital of China for over 1100 years, the eastern terminal of the Silk Road and is best known for the Terracotta warriors – which weren’t discovered until 1974. Xi’an is considered a “small” city in China  - only about 9 million – that’s only slightly smaller than metro Toronto and Vancouver combined! 

 Passing through the suburbs on the train the city appears more “real” than Beijing – you can tell by the architecture it is a city with a bone - it seems more substantial.  One tip off that this is a historic city is the city wall.

Emperor Gaozong
 As soon as we get off the train we’re met by our local guide and escorted to our hotel to have breakfast, freshen up and get ready for our first Xi’an excursion.  The hotel comes complete with the excellent 17 types of bread buffet – a welcome sight for the Brits who go crazy loading up their plates with carbs.

Gonzo the Great
After breakfast we’re off to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda (not to be mistaken for the “Not So Big Not So Wild Goose Pagoda.”  After the Terracotta Warriors, Xi’an is famous for the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, a well-preserved ancient building and a holy place for Buddhists.   It’s an impressive leaning structure that the Chinese equivalent to the Tower of Pisa - except that it was built five hundred years earlier during the reign of Emperor Gaozong (not to be mistaken by Gonzo the Great). 

 Our local guide explains how the pagoda got its name.  It appears at that time there were two groups of Buddhists: one who were vegetarians and the other who ate meat – which was okay in those days since there was no taboo about eating meat.  One day the carnivore monks couldn’t find meat to buy, so one of the them said to himself, “Boy, I’m sure hungry.  Maybe the merciful Bodhisattva will give us some meat to eat.”  At that exact moment a flock of geese happened to be flying over – and one of them dropped dead at the feet of the startled starving monk.  All the monks all looked up and shouted “A miracle!” and immediately became vegetarians and built this pagoda which they named after the unfortunate goose.

The guide is faced with a look of bewildered faces.  I put up my hand.

“Sorry – I don’t get it,” I tell him.  “Let me break the story down.  Guys are starving.  They pray for food.  Bodhisattva drops a nice juicy goose right at their feet.  They don’t have to anything.  They look up and say Thanks, but no thanks.  Got any turnips?”

One of the Scots, who hasn’t appreciated the local cuisine,  turns to me and says “I'll tell you one thing laddie, if someone dropped a nice fat goose  at my feet right now, it would be on a plate in five seconds flat!”

“I guess eastern religions are far more subtle than our western ones,” I continue - ignoring the salivating Scot.  “If that happened in our Bible God would have turned the ungrateful wretches into pillars of salt, and wiped out the town to boot.” 

I’m faced with a bewildered look from the guide.

“Ok, let me give you a more concrete example.  I’m Jewish.  We’ve just celebrated Passover.  It celebrates the Jews escape from Egypt.  The Jews get out of Egypt only to be chased by the Egyptians and are trapped against the shore of the Red Sea.  They pray for a miracle.  God parts the Red Sea, and the Jews look up and say “What!!! You expect us to walk?”  It wouldn’t have been a pretty picture.”

I’m greeted with enthusiastic nods from members of our group. 

I’m told that the Buddhist’s inside the Pagoda might know the answer, but it will cost me 30 yuan to climb up to the top and become enlightened.  I tell them  we have a similarly named  attraction in Canada – it’s called the WildGoose Winery - it was also  based on a vision :   According to their website:  

It all began in early 1983 when founder Adolf Kruger purchased a barren piece of land east of Okanagan Falls. Upon his return to his newly purchased property he discovered a large flock of Canada geese feeding amongst the tumbleweeds, boulders, and rubble. As he approached, the flock of geese took flight and flew to the north.  This vision inspired Adolf to call the property Wild Goose Vineyards.
seeking enlightenment

That's a vision I can understand - pass the merlot. 

Feng mutters something about me coming back in another life as a cockroach.  I retreat to the meditating gardens, contemplate my navel, and keep a wary eye on the skies lest an angry Buddha drop a goose on my head.   I probably don’t have to worry.  Given  the level of smog, it wouldn’t be highly unlikely if a goose or any other bird dropped out of the sky.  Perhaps they might rename it the Big Wheezing Goose Pagoda.

After our visit to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda we’re whisked off to a restaurant to try our hand (literally) at hot pot – a local delicacy.   Given their lack of skill at managing to snag food at previous meals, the Brits are looking forward to any new experience that might result in them imbibing copious amounts of protein.
facing the challenge of the "hot pot" dinner
“What I wouldn’t give for a nice haggis now,” one of them says wistfully.
“What’s haggis?” asks Feng.
“A savory pudding containing sheep’s heart, liver and lungs; minced with onions oatmeal, suet and spices encased in the sheep’s stomach,” he replies.
“and you people complain about our food!” she retorts

Their hopes are soon dashed as we’re escorted into a large dining room and seated elbow to elbow around a large table.  In front of each contestant…. Sorry, diner… is a pot filled with boiling stock.  Past this first great wall of steaming caldrons in the center of the table are plates filled with edible delicacies.  There’s plates of thin sliced beef, pork, chicken, mushrooms, and many unidentifiable vegetables.  Oh yes, they’re on a large turntable.  So in order to get the morsels you have to spin the turntable of doom without knocking over pots of boiling stock. Once the desired plate has stopped in front you the next challenge is to be able to reach over the bubbling pots, snag some food, and drop them, into your boiling pot and let them cook.  Then take them out, put them on to your plate and eat them.  And, oh
yes, no forks.  This is going to be a major problem for the Brits, most of who can’t pick up an egg roll off a plate with four chopsticks, let alone pluck a slippery morsel out of the boiling broth.

Several of them don’t try.  They just sigh, get up and go outside for a cigarette.  After a suitable amount of time the rest of us joins them nursing burned fingers and wrists.
Then it’s off for a bike ride on the  Xi’an’s historic city wall.   he wall was originally built around 900, then upgraded by the emperor Zhu “Donald Trump” Yuanzhang around 1640. The current Trump would like this wall – it’s nice and high (about 40 feet).  It’s about 45 feet wide at the top and covers about 8.5 miles (13.7km).  It makes for a very nice walk or bike ride – which is what four of our group did.  The rest opted for the golf cart tour.  
bicycling the wall

If Xi’an doesn’t already have a lot to offer with the Terracotta Warriors and the Big Wild Goose Pagoda it has an additional treat – the Muslim Quarter.  Xi’an  has had a significant Muslim population.  Xi’an was the first city in China to be introduced to Islam when emperor Gaozong officially allowed the practice of Islam in 651 AD and has had a continued presence in the city Xi’an.  However over the centuries intermarriage and conversion has made today’s Muslim’s indistinguishable from the rest of the population – except for their colorful clothing.
Street in Muslim Quarter

The Muslim Quarter is located near the city center and covers several blocks and has a population of over 20,000 Muslims squeezed into the small area.  The area is popular not only to tourists but locals as well when it comes to street food.

street food in Muslim Quarter
If the Brits on the tour thought that China was exotic they might as well been dropped into the Star Wars Cantina Bar!   Besides the colorful clothes, the music, and the general hub-bub the food is unbelievable.  If you’re not up to the lamb kebobs definitely try the sweet buns or the locally made candy.  If you’re in Xi’an visit to the Muslim Quarter is right up there with the Terracotta warriors in my book.

After an hour of wandering around the back alleys of the quarter it was time to head back to the hotel for dinner and an early night


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