|The Barn Swallow Project||
It turns out it’s harder to find swallows in a city of 20 million people than one of 2 million people. This is because you can’t ask a taxi driver to “take you to the main market,” or take you to the “old part” of the city. The taxi drivers think you’re crazy when you say this. There is just too much city to deal with.
We really threw ourselves off the grid in Yinchuan, the provincial capital of Ningxia and the last northern outpost on the Yellow River before you hit the Helan Mountains and the vast expanse of the Gobi Desert. This is the first place we went with no connections- Liu Yu had no friends there, no friends of friends. We (I) decided we should go anyway, that our swallow-finding skills were honed enough to manage alone in a completely unknown city.
We wound up standing in the desert in a gray, cold rain, near the border with Inner Mongolia, surrounded by miles of rocky, grass-tufted soil, gazing at a big outdoor film set where they used to film Chinese Westerns. Two massive Chinese lions roared between Pueblo-style gates while a big gold replica Oscar statue loomed behind, and Chinese tourists huddled under umbrellas with their cameras. There were no swallows there.
Xi’an has been our favorite city in China so far (this post is late and we’ve now been to Beijing, so that’s saying something). Changsha, Zhengzhou, and Nanning all felt so new and so similar it’s like they were recently airlifted in from a big city factory somewhere, all pre-fabricated and ready to go. Xi’an, by contrast, has some history to it, some weight. The central part of the city is still surrounded by massive Ming-era walls, there are old Drum and Bell towers in the highway medians, and mosques and temples built in Chinese pagoda style tucked down side streets, and a touristified but still cool Muslim Quarter. There are twisty markets and nice parks and great food, and the big streets are clean and leafy and modern without the harried, grimy uniformity of the other cities. And, of course, there’s a pretty big historical and cultural draw nearby in the Terracotta Army.