Retreading to New Places

So as I mentioned, I boarded a 33 hour train to Xi’an on Saturday, which was actually really really nice.  I didn’t get restless, slept a lot (less than I could have due to the snorer directly opposite me, but I succeeded in not punching him), and am now halfway done with “The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy”.  It’s proving dense, but real interesting.

Got into Xi’an bright and early, met up with Pabs and Helen for a delicious breakfast in the Muslim quarter (thick hearty soup with bread, something I haven’t had since I left), and then, as is mandatory during Chinese New Year, we went a-visiting.  First was to Pabs’ host family (I’ll be seeing mine when I get back to Xi’an) for lunch, featuring Spanish chorizo, which was super bomb.  Had some good chats with the family and gave some tips to their son who is applying to high schools in the U.S.  Had a good deal of wine, but managed to brace ourselves for Helen’s family.  Today was apparently the day they visit her maternal grandmother’s sister’s family, so she had to put in an appearance before we left.  We show up to about twenty people in a cozy apartment, and just kinda sit there making small talk until the food started (which had been pushed up for our benefit before our 6:50 train).  Good-ass food, accompanied by plenty of alcohol courtesy of Helen’s dad and grandfather.  Due to our train commitment, we were able to get out before we embarrassed ourselves, but Pabs and I were inexplicably at about the same level of comfortably toasted for the next five hours.

We get in to Qixian, in neighboring Shanxi province, get to the hotel, and then sleep.  The next the afternoon we went out to the Qiao family estate, the region’s biggest draw (there’s really barely anything else here), for a quintessential Chinese New Year Travel experience.  The new year being China’s biggest holiday, it’s also the time of year the most people get time off.  There’s actually a word for it, 春运 (chunyun, choonyoon), that refers to the massive movement of people going back home to be with family, the second massive movement where they all go traveling for the second half of the week, and then the third one where they all go back to their jobs.  Tens of millions of people, and so many of them packed into this one tourist attraction. Why we assumed this tiny, out of the way town was exempt I don’t know, but it wasn’t, and here’s the line to get into the Qiao estate.

Now who were the Qiao?  They were a merchant family that kind of ruled the area, a little like the Borgias (complete with their own TV drama) during the late 18th, all of the 19th, and into the 20th century, disproving the adage that “no family can be prosperous for more than three generations.”  Their founder, Qiao Guifa, left Shanxi destitute and built a business empire from camels in Mongolia to tofu, that eventually became a business empire stretching aaaaaalllllllllll over the world selling just about everything you could imagine.

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Their estate was also insane, like the size of a small village, and it’s impressive as all hell.  Here’s a scale model of the original, what we saw was about twice that size.

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I didn’t take too many pictures, cus while beautiful you’ll be seeing a lot more of the same architecture when we get to Pingyao, but the estate was basically many smaller, still opulent for the time homes squished together, with two gardens, all surrounded by a wall.  The most impressive thing for me was the woodwork on the doorframes, which I sadly didn’t have a good enough camera to completely capture.  It featured a lot of grapes though, as an allusion to 多子多福 or many sons equals many blessings.  See, seeds and sons share the same character (oddly, sperm doesn’t, so no Biblical “seed” comparison), so since grapes have so many seeds in their natural incarnation, they’re an auspicious marking for (male) children.

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