J. Kenji López-Alt blah


Location: Xi'an, China


This morning I overheard a conversation a girl was having with another girl in the lobby of our hostel. I couldn't quite place where she was from. Israel, perhaps? Anyhow, it went something like this:

Her: "Have you been here long?"

Nice Family Traveling with Kids: "Oh, just a couple of days."

H: "Have you found anything good to eat here?"

Please bear in mind: we're in Xi'an. The terminus of the Silk Road. Where European, Arab, Persian, and Indian cultures have been imported into China for over two millenia. It's one of the most culinarily rich breeding grounds on the planet, and she was wondering if there's anything good to eat?

NFTWK: "Yeah! Actually, there's a good noodle shop just down the street here." The kid then chimed in with a nod of approval and a "oh yeah, those were yummy spicy noodles!"

H: "Hmm, I don't really like noodles, and I don't like spicy food."

NFTWK: "Well what are you looking for? They have Western food in some restaurants here too."

H: "No, I like Chinese food, I was thinking something more like egg rolls though."

At this point I sort of tuned out. Mostly at my wife's behest, I do my very very best to try and be as un-snobby as possible, but that level of... I'm not sure what it is. Cultural ignorance? I suppose she's traveled all the way here so is seems she's probably at least trying to educate herself. Cultural indifference perhaps? Or is it just a failure to appreciate how large a role culinary history and tradition plays into culture?

Let's just go with that. That level of culinary indifference simply doesn't sit right with me. And you see it all the time. The backpackers paying 30 RMB for french toast and bacon in the hostel dining room when you can get the best fucking liangpi noodles you've ever had for 4 RMB twenty feet down the street. The Australian girl we met who had just come from a month-long trek in Tibet who made a face and said Oh god, no! when I asked her if she had tried po cha, the famous Tibetan drink.

I mean, who wouldn't want to taste hyper-concentrated tea churned with fermented yak butter?

Then again, they probably think the same of me as my eyes start to glaze over when they start talking emphatically about the historical sites they've visited.

There was a Radiolab episode I listened to the other day called Things, in which one of the hosts, Robert Krulwich, talks about his obsession with objects of historical significance. He speaks about how by simply touching an object that he knows has historical significance—a piece of cloth that was taken to the moon by Neil Armstrong, for instance—he feels a connection to history, an electric jolt of sorts.

His wife, on the other hand, feels none of it. Her reaction to sitting in the seat once reserved for the Dowager Empress Cixi, the last Empress of China? Meh. I would have ordered my servants to make more comfortable chairs.

I'm right there with her. I can count the number of times I've been excited by the man-made history of an object on two fingers, and both of those fingers would be counting personal items that have been autographed by Beatles.

Natural history? Bring it on. Mountains? Oceans? Fossils? The cosmos? I can't get enough. But old temples and ancient monuments? Yawn.

Even the Great Wall, while impressive in scope, was interesting to me more for its feats of engineering and awe-inspiring scale than for its historical significance.


Which is all to say that the least exciting portion of our visit to Xi'an was what by all rights should have been the most. I mean, the Terracotta Warrior Army is rated #1 on Tripadviser's top attractions in Xi'an. Judging from the hordes of people, the inflated entrance fee, and the jostling to get a good view of the four-times-a-football-field-sized pit in the first of its three large enclosures, there are plenty of folks who actually do find it extremely interesting.

What isn't interesting about seeing over 8,000 life-sized clay statues, each one completely different, depicting the armies of the first Emperor of China? These things are over 2,200 years old, and until they were accidentally discovered by farmers digging a well in 1974, were completely unknown to the world.


All of that is intellectually impressive to me, and in fact interesting—I read through their Wikipedia entry with rapt fascination. But looking at them? No electric shocks, no tingles, no oppressive weight of history upon my shoulders. My brain simply isn't wired to connect physical objects to their stories. Food on the other hand, is all about its stories.

All I could think as I was literally elbowed out of the way by a thin Chinese woman so that she could selfie herself in front of the clay soldiers was I wonder if that noodle shop by the bus station is any good?


The building it's housed in is actually pretty cool. It's big enough that the far end is partially obscured by haze. I've always been fascinated by airplane hangars, and large truss system analysis was my favorite part of the structures classes I had to take for my now-useless architecture degree.

Man, I sound like an obnoxious, ungrateful, first-world-problem-riddled git, don't I? For all you history buffs out there who would give an arm and a leg to visit this site, I truly hope you make it here one day and appreciate it extra hard to make up for my nonchalance.

Adri wanted to take my photograph in front of the largest pit and I did my very best to look excited. This is how it turned out:


I'm really terrible at faking emotions.

After looking at this picture, it occurred to me that there were several thousand other people in this room who were at least as bored as I was:


I guess I'd've been bored too if Qin, the first Emperor of China had just declared "Ok troops, now, stand still please—we're going to capture your exact likenesses and despite our fabulous recent technological advances in the realms of writing, the printing press, and archery, we haven't quite yet gotten around to photographs or 3D scanners yet so we're gonna have to do this the old fashioned way, and... Hey! Ming! Quit it with the rabbit ears, will you? We'll do a fun one afterwards, I promise, ok?"


So why did we come here? Well, it's for the same reason that made me want to facepalm when I heard that girl asking where you can get egg rolls in Xi'an: I'd have to be a complete jerk to travel half way around the world to the site of what's recognized as one of the world's greatest archaeological finds and not spend the half a day it takes to take it in.

That and Adri certainly enjoys this kind of in situ historical-type stuff*

*I've always had the bored-to-tears-by-museums gene and have never been afraid to admit it. What I only found out two days ago is that Adri happens to have that gene as well. When we got married and she found out that I have it, she was so relieved to know that she wouldn't have to spend a lifetime pretending to be interested in them just for my benefit. I find it very endearing and probably quite indicative of how much our relationship has progressed since then. These days she'd have no problem letting me know that something bore her, even if it's the most exciting thing in the world for me.

I have a sneaking suspicion that at least a handful of the hundreds of folks who gave those five-star ratings on Tripadvisor feel the same way I do but fake some excitement out of a sense of obligation to history. To all of you out there: it's ok to not be enthralled by that which you should be enthralled by!

Anyhow, I don't mean this to sound like I'm having anything other than a blast and a half. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that we've been saving and planning for for half a decade, and while the historical sites might not be on the top of my list, the culinary and cultural experience has been nothing short of spectacular so far, nowhere more so than in Xi'an. Turns out the noodle shop by the bus station actually wasn't particularly good, but we made up for that meal in spades later on in the evening.

(Stay tuned, the next post is about the things that actually do get me all spine-tingly excited).

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