Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Small Pagoda, Now

As I said before, I visited the Small Wild Goose Pagoda by myself. A short hop on bus 29 got me there and it was just a matter of scanning the skyline to find it, in all of its ancient majesty. Now: how to get to it? Ah, I see! Just follow the crowds; they are all headed there too.

Apparently there was a celebration of some sort going on in the park that surrounded the pagoda. As I arrived I was met by the cacophony of Chinese music. Chinese music does seem discordant rather than melodious to me: the drum tones are flat, the brasses are monotone and the singing doesn’t seem to keep time with the instrumental portion of the song. But the dancers seem to love it!

I stood at the gate, just outside of the enclosure and watched the dancing. It was a traditional dance with the women waving neon green fans and the men carrying brightly colored parasols. One dancer in particular was so enthusiastic that his smile threatened to break his face and his head bobbed with every step he took. The ‘ears’ of the towel tied on his head nodded cheerily, as though to encourage all of us spectators to nod our heads as well. His joy and passion were contagious and captivating. It is his picture I include with this entry. Like with the Big Pagoda, you can see pictures of the Small Pagoda online but you probably wouldn’t be able to see the smile on this dancer’s face unless I include it in the blog.

I decided to pay the 20Yuan to get into the park. There seemed to be a carnival atmosphere: the weather was acceptable, the people friendly and smiling, the dance captivating. I really wanted to be part of it.

After entering the enclosure I stopped to watch the dancers some more. By this time my dancer friend in the blue jacket was playing cymbals instead of dancing, and his smile had waned. The rest of the dancers paled in comparison to my favorite one, and indeed it seems the crowds were scattering. Soon the dancing stopped. I moved on.

It seems that everywhere, people were taking pictures: fathers of their wives and children, boyfriends of their girlfriends, tourists of everything picture-worthy. At times I offered to take pictures of whole families so that everyone – Dad, Mom and Kid could be in at least one shot. I’m not sure what these people thought of the big blond stranger offering to help them by taking their picture for them, but they did seem grateful and not one had a problem handing over their camera. Of course, I gave them their camera back after I took their picture; it would have been a frantic chase through the park if I had been laden down with so many cameras!

Over a bridge, across a small pond and down a path I slowly wended my way to the pagoda. I wanted to savor the moment so I attempted to build anticipation at being at the base of the structure by taking my time. I should have just headed over there directly because I didn’t really take anything in, being so busy looking at the pagoda and its rounded edges and majestic height.

Indeed it did give the appearance of soaring, unlike the Big Pagoda, which seems to waddle and remain grounded.

Although at one time the structure must have had very defined corners, now the edges on each layer of the pagoda are gently rounded. The construction is brick and over time, some of the mortar eroded and the outermost bricks on the corners fell off. The effect is of a gently rounded yet powerful lance, extending skyward. It does look slightly tired, as though having stood there all of these centuries have worn it out. But, it does not give the impression of wishing to crumble.

One could go inside the pagoda and climb all the way to the top, but for the extra 30Yuan it would cost me, I figured just standing at its base was enough for me. I walked around its base platform mostly looking up, but occasionally casting my eyes down to what was happening on the ground below. That is when I saw two angry men wielding large wooden mallets, beating on a tree stump. They had a certain rhythm going and it seemed that there was nearly a vengeance to their pounding. Suddenly they stopped and one of the men flipped over a substance that looked like pummeled tree bark. Interesting. I went to check it out.

Now, my dentist loves me! More specifically, if this treat ever made it to America, all the dentists would love it!

The men were pounding peanuts, flour and molasses into a type of bark, when they were done pounding on it, was as flexible as paper. One of the men turned it over, balled it up and the pounding began anew. This went on until there were no more peanuts to be seen. One of the men took the mallets and the other grabbed a large putty knife and cut this flattened bark into chunks. I just had to try some, and the clerk at the stand gave me a sample.

Heaven! I’m in Heaven! Oh, I have never tasted peanut brittle, peanut candy or any type of peanut confection that had exactly that texture, that perfect blend of sweetness and grit, that exquisite, peanutty goodness that that treat had. With no compunction whatsoever I handed over the 10Yuan it cost me to own my very own bag of it. It was still warm from all of its pounding and with no decorum at all, I popped piece after piece into my mouth. Well, not quite slobbishly. I did wait until I was done eating one piece before snagging another one. After four pieces I decided to save some for my friends to try, and I certainly wanted to bring some back to Wuhan with me.

Too bad I left it in the hotel room when I left Xi’an. Fortunately, it is not the last time I will go to Xi’an and I guarantee you I will visit the Small Wild Goose Pagoda again, if only for that treat.

The rest of the park was pretty unremarkable. Various outbuildings and a few guard towers. There was a free concert and I stopped and listened to some Chinese pop music for a few minutes. The most eye-catching displays in the park were of the dragon, constructed completely out of china (dishes, not the country) and a rabbit built completely of corncobs. This is the year of the rabbit, after all. How the corncobs factor in, I couldn’t tell you. As I was leaving the park after my three-hour visit, the dancers were reassembling and getting ready to put on their show again. A whole new crop of spectators had arrived and it was time to pop those parasols and flick those fans.

There is something so joyous and peaceful about ambling around Xi’an. A short bus ride, a few Yuan paid here and there and you are exposed to something so marvelous, so iconic, so Xi’an. That is why I love this town.

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