The other night Blondie and Phillip and I took a taxi downtown in search of a dumpling restaurant recommended by another English teacher. The taxi driver said he wouldn't be able to drop us off right by the restaurant, but pointed us in the general direction when we got out. Then we walked 10 minutes in the wrong direction, asked a girl in a shop where the restaurant was, walked another 15 minutes in the right direction and finally found the restaurant. And when we got there, they were out of what Blondie wanted and out of what Phillip wanted. And me? I'm not so big on those dumpling thingies.
So we were all just a tiny bit disappointed when we got back in a taxi to come home. And then? A traffic jam.
I think I've become a little more used to the driving here. It's best if I don't look out the windshield and I just concentrate on what's going out outside my window. The goal is not necessarily to drive fast, but to never stop. The drivers who figure out how to use their brake pedal the least are the ones who end up with careers in public transportation. Anyway, riding in the taxis and buses is even a little thrilling for me- no one else is concerned with dying so why should I?
But there is lots of stopping involved in a traffic jam and our driver was unhappy. "There must be something going on," he told us. "Some kind of gathering spilling into the streets."
And there was! I was on the wrong side of the taxi to see most of the people hanging out on the side of the street, but I could tell that everyone was very focused on the opposite side of the street. Maybe it was a political demonstration! No one was holding a sign or chanting anything, but Blondie had told us earlier that most demonstrations in China just mean a whole bunch of people standing around in one place doing nothing, waiting until it's time to go home.
As our taxi kept inching forward, the throngs of people grew. We saw policemen lined up about 10 feet apart on my side of the street- it turned out they were positioned there to keep all the people from swarming through the traffic to get to the other side. When we were a few yards outside of the city wall, we finally saw what was going on. Sort of. On the next bridge over (there's a HUGE moat-like ditch around the entire city wall and every gate has a bridge) there were giant movie set-type lights hovering over the intersection where you turn to head into the city wall gate. Right at the gate were dozens of people in medieval-looking red and gold costumes (or China's version of medieval, I guess. I thought I saw suits of gold armor.)
"Ooooh!" Blondie shrieked. "Maybe JAY is here!"
Jay is China's Justin Timberlake. He's cute, he sings, he's introduced rap to China, and he's holding a very large and very well-promoted concert here tonight. Signs for the concert are all over town and you can even find copies of Jay's CD that aren't pirated.
It did kind of look like a huge photo shoot. Since we were still on the bridge heading out of the gate, our taxi was now being used as a barrier between the people and the police. The people kept getting closer and closer and the police kept yelling and yelling. We even saw one policeman storm out into the crowd waving his baton. Everyone shrank back a bit after that, but a few minutes later they were squeezed right up to the window. Phillip had a good view of an assortment of Chinese belly buttons.
Blondie was beside herself. "WHAT IS GOING ON?" she asked the driver, but he had no idea. So she asked him to roll down his window so she could yell at one of the policemen. "WHAT IS GOING ON?" The policeman was about 16 years old and had a toothpick in his mouth, so we couldn't quite tell what he was saying. It's entirely possible he was saying, "Get your head back in the car you crazy foreigner." Finally Blondie rolled down her own window and began shouting at the people crowded around our taxi. (Keep in mind that there were officially supposed to be about 3 lanes of traffic next to us and unofficially maybe 6 or 7. These people were very brave.)
"I don't know! I don't know!" they yelled back. And we realized that no one had any idea what was going on, except that there were lights and flashes and people in costume on the next bridge and SOMETHING WAS HAPPENING.
Then one kid yelled at us, "Jackie Chan is here!" And we looked at each other and said, "NO!"
But it turns it out it was Jackie Chan.
We really really wanted to get out of the cab and gawk with everyone else, but none of us had much education in the skill of Chinese Onlooking, especially when police and traffic are involved, so we stayed in the taxi and went home. Blondie and Phillip were a little jealous of me because, as I had the only actual view of what was happening on the next bridge, I might have actually SEEN Jackie Chan! I rock! Blondie asked the school's Foreign Affairs department about it and they said that Jackie Chan was in town because he will be filming a movie in Xi'an. Then they told her the name of the hotel where he was staying in case they're looking for foreign extras to be in the movie. We thought this was pretty funny. Imagine knocking on Jackie Chan's hotel room door. "Hello, Mr. Chan? May I please be in your new movie?"
That was our first time going downtown and the first time it really dawned on me that there ARE 3.3 million people in this city. The street we live on, about 10 minutes outside the city wall, is large and tree-lined, but so is every single other street in town. (And the trees are the same color of gray as everything else.) What matters is how many cars can fit on your street. Then you know if you're downtown or not. The shopping malls are seven stories high with flat screen TV monitors posted outside. You have to go underground to cross the intersection by the Bell Tower. There are couture gowns displayed in shop windows and street food vendors on every corner. It's pretty exciting. It's also been rainy and gray every day and there is constant danger of getting your eye poked out with unbrella spokes. Phillip was the only person in Xi'an last night wearing a rain coat instead of carrying an umbrella. (I, the foreigner, decide to "fit in" and NOT wear my rain coat. I get stared at anyway.) It's too hot to wear a jacket. It's 80 degrees out, but gray and rainy and dark. Kinda weird.
Today we're heading out to see the Terracotta Warriors. It's a half hour bus ride to the train station and an hour bus ride to the site. The woman at the noodle shop across the street says it's "boring", but we're going anyway. We are also taking some Chinese students with us who, hopefully, can score us the local ticket price and not the foreigner price. I will be hiding in the back.