The next morning Xian was covered with snow and frost. My new beard helped me to cope with the cold. Rooms around the main road in front of the train station were expensive, maybe due to the many tourists. I decided to try my luck elsewhere and began walking in ever increasing circles. Shortly after, I discovered the red light district which was surprisingly active at this hour. Women sat inside small rooms next to coal heaters and invited passersby to enter. Nearby were many hotels. In the one I chose, the receptionist didn’t speak English, and after some unsuccessful attempts at communication, the receptionist took out a paper and showed me her scribbled Chinese, thinking that I simply spoke some weird dialect. For them, their characters are universal and it was hard to conceive an adult unable to read them. I signaled that I could not read Chinese characters and next to them wrote the number sixty. She understood the message and I received a very good room.
After the long train ride, I wanted to take a walk to stretch my legs and the unusual beauty of the city was an additional incentive. Subzero temperatures during the day were new to me. The snow was piled away from the sidewalks at the base of several trees. From there, people shoveled it into special trucks. The central plaza was a masterpiece, with a classical Chinese bell tower at its center, surrounded by disguised shopping malls. Magnificent pagodas were scattered throughout the city’s center which was delimited by restored city walls. Their main staple was a bread resembling a pita pocket. Some were sold filled with meat and vegetables in them. All around were ambulant sellers of sugared fruits and of solid blocks of nuts and raisins, which were sold by weight.
I dedicated another day to the city center and walked to the temple of Eight Immortals, one of the best Taoist temples in China. In front of it there was a small antiques market offering books, coins, stamps, stones, jewelry and other useless items. Later I crossed through the city’s Eastern Gate, where at the surrounding canal an old man was standing to his waist in freezing water to fish. From there I advanced to the west, through the central plaza until I found the Muslim quarter, populated mainly by Hui people, the name with which Muslim Ethnic Chinese distinguish themselves. I entered the big mosque at its center, Daqingzhen Si, for free since my beard and salutations in Arabic confused them into believing I wasn’t a tourist. The interior was surprising, as it looked completely Chinese with concentric yards and no central dome as in a classical mosque. Since it was the time for prayer, a time when the temple is closed to tourists, I snapped a good picture of the muezzin calling to the believers, but at this stage my actions drew their attention so I left before being approached. Hungry from the walk, I found an excellent Hui place to eat Yangrou Paomo, a soup made of thin rice noodles, mutton meat, oil, some vegetables and a big round loaf of bread, which was added into the soup in small pieces.
I exited the quarter through a market aimed at tourists. The most colorful shops there were selling bilingual name chops, one of them even a Hebrew - Chinese version. One house caught my attention because it had a classical Chinese look with a stone lion at each side of the door and it was well preserved. I could see through the open door that the interior was constructed in the local courtyard style and that the wood was carved in exquisite detail, albeit there was no furniture at all. From an unexpected direction a young woman appeared and walked towards me while smiling.
"Hello, come in please."
"Hi, to where?"
"Come and see the house. It has been restored. Don’t worry it is safe."
Her English was good, and I felt certain this was a tourist trap, but I wasn’t sure how. Reluctantly, I entered and followed her across two yards to an empty inner room on the way to the final room in the back of the house. Paintings of traditional Chinese themes on silk and paper hung on all the walls.
"We are art students and here we work and sell our art. You see the signature?" she asked pointing to a red square filled with Chinese characters.
"That is our teacher’s signature. It shows that the works are original. Do you want to buy some?"
"Your teacher made them?"
"No, it’s our work, but he backs it."
"But they are all the same, the four seasons or the three ladies," I protested.
"These are our traditional themes, but we painted them, I can give you a
good price" she said and began to quote prices...
(Excerpt from Chapter 55. A Casual Encounter)
The Cross of Bethlehem is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle edtitions.