Day 43 - Sunday 14th May - Xi'an

In stark contrast to the previous day, it was cool and wet when we rose in the morning. We were off to see the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.

This place holds a special interest for us as I have followed with interest the story of Xuanzang in our research for the trip.

In the 7th century a Chinese Buddhist priest, Xuanzang travelled to India to get a better understanding of Buddhism. He documented his travels in a book called “Journey to the West”. The book was and is ground breaking as it not only documented in detail his journey, but also the geographic, economic and social aspects of the lands he travelled through. It is a marvellous historical record of the time. I have not read it, but in recent years a Chinese girl retraced his journey and wrote “10,000 days without a Cloud”. It’s a beautifully written book about 3 generations of her family, the current state of Buddhism in China and of course a record of her journey following in the footsteps of Xuanzang.

When he eventually returned to China the Emperor built the Big Wild Goose Pagoda to house both Xuanzang and some of the manuscripts he returned with.

Xuanzang also left a load of manuscripts and sutras at the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, where we are also headed in a few days. More about that then.

Like most of these old buildings, the original Pagoda had been destroyed by fire and earthquake several times over the centuries, so that the current one dates from the Ming times – 14th century.

We jumped on the bus to take us to the Pagoda to find out we had a new member of the team. Tony (now called T2, so as not to be confused with Tony Wheeler) is a garrulous and very confident young kid from CCTV (China Central – the local equivalent to the ABC or BBC). He has been assigned to cover our trip from Xi’an to London. He found out about his assignment yesterday.

Apparently there was strong interest on the news bits that T2 filmed in Beijing and a decision has been made to follow the journey and expand it into a longer documentary. Tony W is the central figure as there is a lot of interest in him. The Chinese see him as the “father of modern tourism”. The Lonely Planet books sell very strongly in China and independent international travel is growing strongly now that the restrictions on movement have been removed (the government has no worries about people scarpering off once abroad, they are of the view that there is only one place in the world for the young, educated and ambitious). 

T2 was not prepared for the journey to London. He basically has a small bag with a change of knickers, nor has he explained his extended absence to his wife and son. They thought he was off to Beijing on a photo shoot for a couple of days, not to London.

As you may appreciate, we have a lot of questions about this. Most of which are unanswered. A couple of fundamental ones like how is he going to travel and what about visas get answered with “head office is working on it”. Then there are the issues that affect us – starting with do we want this – but that line of questioning sort of ends with: when in China do as the Chinese government wants. Needless to say that most of the group is comfortable with the new addition and are taking a very Confucian attitude – we will just see how this unfolds. It does help that T2, speaks good English, is very personable, and regales us with the stories he has filmed that have been rejected for screening by the mandarins. 

After the Pagoda we wandered off to the North West City Antique market looking for more Mao tat, but other than a few motley posters could not find much. Loris vocalised the “we should have bought those plates in Jingdejang when we saw them line” a number of times.

Somehow when we went searching for a late lunch we got lost in the back alleys, just outside the old city walls. Firstly we came across a large group of guys sitting on a corner with paint rollers on extensions. A few were on bikes and many had little signs. All were earnestly examining their mobile phones. Seemed to be that if you wanted a painter in Xi’an you came to this corner.

A little further down the road, we noticed that the glitz had well and truly disappeared. Were had wandered into the recycling station. Or to put is more accurately recycling street. Vacant yards and shop houses were all full of rubbish being sorted for recycling. Seemed like every shop had a specialisation: glass, plastic bottles, polystyrene etc. We were hungry, so we kept walking.

Pre-dinner we gathered for beers around our cars. Tony had been given a case of beer in Beijing and was keen to offload it. It was lucky that the coffee and vanilla flavoured stout was very cold, as it was not really something I would have gone out and paid good money for.      

I understand that there was an article in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald and also in the Age about the Chinese Belt andRoad strategy. For those that did not see it, the Chinese are spending huge amounts to build a railway to the west along the old Silk Road corridor, upgrading ports in neighbouring countries, building oil and gas pipelines from the middle east and also spending on roads to help truck traffic. Its all directed to upgrading transport links for the export of Chinese goods and import of raw materials.

A meeting was planned in Beijing last Sunday to discuss with regional leaders including Putin.

When we were there, security in Beijing had been choking. Not sure if this iwasthe normal state of affairs, or it had been stepped up for the summit. The place was awash with Belt & Road posters and every pole has a banner fluttering from it.

The initiative is huge as you will appreciate from the dollars, but its not new. It has been around for some time. I allude to it on the front page of my web site. From the Silk Road perspective it is 2 fold. An upgrade of the physical road through to Istanbul and an upgrade of the rail link through to Eastern Europe. As the article says, it also includes port infrastructure and also pipelines for gas and oil.

At this stage as we have only just reached Xi’an, we have not seen the impact (although we are currently driving on toll ways as the alternative is unbearably slow). However once we get to Horgas in the north west and cross the border in Kazakhstan it will be interesting to see the impact. I understand that a couple of years ago Horgas was a sleepy border town with a few thousand people, but now its got a couple of million.