Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Seven-cent buns and the warriors

My friend Matthew in Seattle writes wondering if it's possible to get vegetarian meals in China. The short answer is yes. Meat dishes, especially mutton and duck, are popular, but vegetables are less expensive, and in some small villages, that may be all that's available during certain times. I remember once eating a meal composed mostly of pumpkin and squash because those were what was in season.

In the bigger cities, small street vendors, such as this woman who runs a dumpling shop in an alleyway across from our hotel, turn out many cheap and healthy vegetarian snacks. So do many restaurants.

I walked over to this woman's shop this afternoon to see what she puts in her steamed buns, called bao. The only way to find out, of course, was to buy a couple. She spoke no English and I don't speak Chinese. She got a kick out of having a "foreign'' customer.'' Western visitors walking around on their own, not part of a tour group or with a guide, are a curiosity to the everyday Chinese. They aren't used to much one-on-one contact, even when a hotel is right next door.

I held up two fingers to signal that I wanted two of the plump buns. That didn't seem to work, so I tried again. Then I realized that she wanted to know what kind I wanted. She decided I should take one of each. I handed her a five yuan note (the equivalent of about 75 cents) and got most of back in change. The buns were about 7 cents each.

I asked if I could take her picture. At first, she wanted me to take just the buns. But I wanted her to be in the picture. She laughed and nodded "Yes,'' and I said "Thank you'' in Chinese, one of a handful of phrases I've learned. The others are "How much,'' "Too expensive,'' "Good morning,'' and "Good!''

For me, this little encounter will be as memorable as the three hours we spent visiting the excavation site of the terracotta warriors. Seeing the sights is only one reason to visit China. Meeting the people is another. Doing this is as easy as riding a bus or buying a steamed bun.

Memo to Matthew: One of the buns was filled with boiled greens and chopped onion; the other with cabbage and bean sprouts. Both were delicious. Maybe tomorrow I might visit the the bun lady's next door neighbor. He does arm and shoulder massages.

The clay warriors - about 8,000 soldiers and horses - were discovered in their original burial pits in 1974 by peasants digging a well. They were made to guard the tomb of the Emperor Qin 2,000 years ago. Excavations in three pits uncovered the life-sized statues, many of which have been restored and are on display in the pits enclosed in covered buildings with walking paths along the sides. Notice the faces. Each one has a unique expression.

It was surprisingly easy to get here on our own, without a tour or a guide. Greyhound-style buses (No. 306) leave the train station every half-hour or so, and are clearly marked. The round-trip fare is $2 and the trip takes about an hour. You can rent an audio tour or hire a personal guide at the site, but it's really all pretty much self-explanatory with good signage in English. We spent about three hours looking around, including some time in one of the pits where excavations are still going on. There are supposed to be more in-depth explanations and more artifacts in the history museum in town. We'll go there today to fill in the blanks.

It's raining so it's a good day to do something indoors. We brought umbrellas, but no worries if you don't. As soon as the rain started, women appeared on the streets out of nowhere with fold-up umbrellas for sale. There's nothing you can't buy in China! And the price is almost always negotiable.


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