Monday, September 12, 2016

Ending Our First Day in Xi'an. Dumplings, Bright Lights & Market!

The Bell Tower shimmers at night.

It was an overcast day today with intermittent rain drops.  I was acting as tour guide today so after spending the morning wandering about the Muslim Quarter, I decided to take the gals to the Shaanxi History Museum which I really enjoyed visiting on my visit in 2009.  Mind you, I'm not much of a museum going so if I found the place interesting, I figured that at least Yim, who is a museum goer, would like it.

From the Drum Tower, the gals negotiated for a tuk tuk ride to the museum.  Our first ride and it wasn't bad as long as you didn't pay any attention to the speeding vehicles all around you!



She's very good natured!  Always ready with a smile or to break out in an uncontrollable fit of laughter.  I had forgotten how much she sounds like her mother when she speaks.  If I close my eyes and listen to her, I hear my aunt's voice :-)


It was quite a long ride, at tuk tuk speed, to get to the museum.  Sadly, I have to fire myself as tour guide because today is Monday and generally speaking, that's the one day of the week that museums are closed.  Yes, the doors were shuttered and there was no one around.   Well, I felt a bit stupid.

With nothing else to do, we decided to find a place for lunch and crossed the main road in search of a restaurant.  As we walked, we passed by a small produce store and I caught sight of a bin of the smallest persimmons I had ever seen before.  So small that three of them could easily fit into the palm of my small hand.  They were perfectly ripe too!  I had to get some to try out so I handed over 10 yuan for a bag of 8 which I think came up to about half a kilo e.g., about a pound.


We continued our walk til we found a small eatery that looked decent.  I was still full from breakfast so I was happy just finally being able to munch on a roujiamo aka a Xi'an pita sandwich.  Oh my God.  One bite and I knew exactly why this thing is such a popular snack.  In all honesty,  I couldn't tell if I was eating pork or lamb - Yim thought it was lamb but outside the Muslim Quarter or any Muslim restaurant, pork is the filling.  In any case, the meat was perfectly braised with just the right amount of sauce added back to the chopped up meat.  The bread was amazing -much better than if it had been pita.  It was flaky with a crunchy exterior because it had been fired on the grill and the interior was soft to soak up the meat juices.  Too bad I was so full or else I would have easily devoured a second sandwich.


After lunch, we decided to head back to the hotel.  Smartly, the girls had gotten a hotel card from the concierge but sadly, the writing was so teeny tiny that this cab driver, who obviously needed reading glasses could not make out the text.  I was about to offer him mine but somehow with Yim's help, he was able to figure out where to take us.


Back in the hotel, we relaxed.  My clean laundry got delivered.  Yay!

By night, we decided to head out for dinner.  Your's truly had requested that we treat ourselves to a dumpling banquet at the famed Defachang restaurant which is conveniently located near the Drum Tower which also makes it a bit touristy.  But we had to go.  Yim got the hotel concierge to write down the name of the restaurant, in really big Chinese letters, so we could tell the taxi driver where to take us.

The taxi driver dropped us by the Bell Tower.   We stopped to take some photos of the tower - it's so pretty all lit up.



Following Google Maps, I took the girls over to where the pin was - it  took us near the Drum Tower, around the corner from the red lanterns in the photo below.   On my 2009 trip to Xi'an, our tour group also had a dumpling banquet and I was suspecting that it was at Defachang so I dug deep into memory to try and remember the location of the restaurant.


We had to ask once for directions but I pretty much had it right.  We stepped inside and I recognized the giant gold dumpling.  Indeed it was the same restaurant as where I had eaten in 2009.   Thankfully, my memory is still good!


The waitress seated us upstairs and handed us menus.  Basically, you can choose from several different dumpling banquets.  They were priced differently and we went with the one recommended by the waitress.

In no time, our feast began.  It started with four bowls of cold salads and then the procession of dumpling courses began.  The first dumplings were baked which I found unusual as Chinese dumplings are generally steamed.


We got served three of each type of dumpling and individual bowls of soup dumplings.  To be honest, I had no idea what the fillings (mainly pork?) were but they were all delicious.


I  don't know what produces the black color of the pastry for these dumplings.  Perhaps squid ink?  I was more intrigued at how they were pleated and folded.  Even the plain dough ones were incredible - if you count the pleats, there are more than 10 and this on a dumpling that was barely 1.5 inches in length!


The next steamer held another set of pleating wonders, especially the one on the right.  There's tremendous amount of skill involved in pleated these teeny, tiny dumplings.  The one of the left was filled and then pleated on the top to create four compartments, each of which held a different ingredient. 


Each steamer held dumplings as fantastic as the last.  They look simple at first glance but when you look closer, you realize you have no idea how they were formed.  The one at the bottom is formed and colored to look like a head of Napa cabbage.


One steamer held 3 little birds.  Chickens, I think.


The next dish seemed so simple compared to everything else.  Plain wontons served with a dipping sauce.


Next, our waitress came back to cook and serve up the smallest dumplings of the meal.  Each were about the size of a small marble. 


Whoever has the job of wrapping these marble sized wonders must be the low man on the totem pole. What an incredible amount of labor goes into each bite!


The dumplings were served in a clear broth.


Towards the end our meal, a waitress approached our table with a couple of dishes with samples of sweet items that the restaurant produces for sale.  We tasted but none of us bought any of the items.

On our way out, I stopped to take a look at some of the dumplings in a display case.  They were absolutely amazing - so realistic, it's hard to believe they're dumplings.  On the other hand, I was glad I hadn't spotted them on the way in to the dining room because I would have been thoroughly disappointed with the dumplings we had. Next time and yes, I will be back to Xi'an and Defacheng, I will want to splurge to get these mini masterpieces!


Outside the restaurant, we decided to take a stroll back to the Muslim Quarter, pausing to admire the beautifully lit Drum Tower on the way.







I though the Muslim Quarter was crowded during the day.  That was nothing.  It was absolutely packed with people tonight.  The smell of grilled meat clouded the place.


Not only were there were more eaters strolling the streets, there were more vendors selling food.


The line before the roujiamo vendor was as long at night as it was during the day.  This little cart does a hopping business!


During the day, the street food vendors mainly hangout by the sidewalks but at night, they form a line down the middle of the street as well. 


Foodwise, I didn't notice all that many different food offerings than what I saw during the day.  As an eater, you just have more vendors to choose from for any given type of food item you are looking to have.


As often happens, I'm drawn to elderly vendors like this woman.  She was selling small gourds.  Some were painted and a few had decroative knotted red strings attached but most were just plain.  I have no use for one but I had to buy one from her and so I picked out small plain one.  When I get home, I will have to find a nice ribbon to attach to it so I can hang it up.


The photo below is one of my favorite photos of the trip.  The woman, whom I think looks more Southeast Asian than Chinese, was so focused on her food that it seemed like the sea of people swarming around her didn't exist at all.  She and her small light bulb were in a world all to themselves.





We also stopped when we crossed paths with this woman who was selling lotus leaves and pods from two baskets hanging off the back end of her bicycle.  I knew what the leaves are for - Chinese use them as food wrappers for cooking food.  But what were the pods for?


So, Yim asked and the woman proceeded to show us how to pod a seed out of a pod, peel it and eat it.


I've only ever eaten lotus seeds dried, rehydrated and cooked, never raw. I was intrigued so I also tried a seed.  It wasn't bad though I still think it would taste better cooked.  In any case, for her time and kindness, I bought a pod from the woman.



Soon, we were ready to call it a night.  By the Drum Tower, we saw a row of taxis and tuk tuks at the ready to take passengers wherever they needed to go.  We decided to negotiate with a woman tuk tuk driver for the short ride back to the hotel.


Mal decided to sit on one side.....to supposedly balance Yim and I out.  Yes, she's a big woman but nowhere near the combined weight of Yim and I - we are more *pleasantly plump* than we look :-)  Mal and I have quickly warmed up to each other and yes, I am beginning to share laughs with her!


Riding a tuk tuk at night can be heart stopping, especially if you're riding with Yim.  At one point, I was happily gazing out the door while gripping on the handle when she called out to me to look her way.  Why?  Because a bus was barreling down towards us.  I jokingly berated her for telling me that.  I told her to not let me know when I'm about to die so I can scare myself for a few seconds.  Better I die in ignorance.  We had a good chuckle over that.


Back in the hotel, I got cleaned up and ready for tomorrow.  We are going to see the Terracotta Warriors. I'm dying to see what's changed since 2009.

I'm really glad things went well today, despite the hiccup with the Shaanxi History Museum, as I was worried about how well I would get along with the gals.  If today was any indication, we're going to have a lot of fun together!

Goodnight from Xi'an!