Travels with Penelope

Travel, Food, Wine, Spirituality and Everything Else

May 7, 2017 Xi’an, Zhongguo (China Journal)


Dear Friends,

FYI:  One of my readers told me that she did not know that words in color are links to an explanation or information on the term or site. In the former post, clicking on the blue-green Wuhan in the first sentence will provide more information on yes, the city of Wuhan.

Only two days in Wuhan and it felt as though I had lived in China from a beginning. I did not know the exact timing of that beginning, in a past life perhaps, I only knew that I felt at home and safe. And, home rescinded to the backyards, no that is too close, home retracted to a distant horizon deep in my mind.

We arose the morning after the banquet, packed our bags, and headed to the airport for our flight to Xi’an (shee ahn) the capitol of Shaanxi Province. While waiting for the plane, I found myself absorbed by the stream of passengers flowing through the airport. The other passengers. I began to note the prevalence of that harried passenger look, but more, the gait, demeanor, overall appearance including skin color, eyebrows, eye formation, weight and height. Surprising myself I reached for my camera. More than any, the children drew me in. I felt such love and joy when they were around my space. I knew I stood out with the gaze coming my way. When I stared back, they looked away. I decided to smile. Some gave me a shy smile in return. I cannot recall ever having a feeling of being an odd creature, but with looks and nary another Caucasian in sight (as would be true for most of the journey), I knew I appeared different. All differences aside, I see a world-wide commonality from my travels. As I observed the travelers, the Chinese too, share the same commonality.
























The flight to Xian was not long, about the same as San Francisco to Los Angeles. Out of Wuhan my partner and I entered new territory. A driver and Liu Li our guide met us. I wished Lily could have, but with a one-and-a-half-year-old at home twas not possible. I found Lily’s company Lily’s Private Tours listed on Trip Advisor’s top ten list. Currently she is in the top two. I contacted a few guides on the list, but Lily responding within twenty-four hours of my inquiry impressed me most. We began what turned into an almost daily correspondence.  I will never forget her email the day after the itinerary was all set. “Penelope, I did not get an email from you today and already I miss you.” I felt I had a friend waiting in Xian. If I am going to make any recommendations from the trip to China, my top is Lily’s. She set up everything for us from Xian to Hangzhou to Suzhou.  Her attention to detail, the way she listened to what I said, her copious notes on my requests all played throughout the trip. The topnotch guides she sent were as prepared and helpful as Lily.

As we emerged from the gate Liu Li waved her “Shackelford” sign. Not hard to spot us in view of the differences mentioned above. A smiling woman who spoke good English and as I would find out, with a great big heart, was all set to guide us. Lily had forewarned that she was giving me one of her “best guides” to Xian, and so she did. Landing at the top of lunch hour, Liu Li lead us to a take-out stand where we fueled up on vegetable dumplings for the afternoon tour. Then off to Han Yang Ling Museum. The underground museum turned out to be a 5,000-acre piece of land housing, burial pits, ceremonial sites, a criminal burial spot and most important the tomb of Liu Qi, an emperor of the Western Han Dynasty and his empress. As Liu Li discussed the history of the site I was reminded of the burial customs I had witnessed in the pyramids of Egypt. I also realized how little I knew about Chinese history.

Approaching the museum






Over all layout of the museum















Years earlier I had studied the spiritual traditions of China, but as a study of a way in and of itself. Now I had come to Zhongguo to see the sites of course, but more important I wanted to understand the Chinese world view – as much as was possible in a few weeks. More than a current mind set, I wanted to understand the ground of that view, the gestalt. I was grateful for a small brochure I found at the museum on the chronology and history of the dynasties. Although the information was brief and succinct, it served to help my understanding of the gestalt I was seeking. I found that the Han Dynasty entrenched in Taoism and the ethics of Confucianism placed importance on harmonious relationship with family and friends, and yin and yang cosmologies. My understanding of the gestalt, initial as it was, began to come together. I recalled the conversation with the students at the dinner my first night in Wuhan. The ancient custom of respect for the elders had come through in our discussion of the young woman’s major. Reading through the pamphlet synopsis of Confucianism I began to connect the dots from historically set to current behavior patterns.

From the museum we headed into the city of Xi’an. One of the oldest cities in China, I had heard that it is referred to as the fountain head. Two things had drawn me: the famed world heritage site of the terra cotta warriors and the fact that the ancient Silk Road route begins in Xian. Since the day I had hyper-looped to Azerbaijan, I so wanted to travel that road. I hoped that by visiting Xi’an I would have a chance to test the waters for such a trip.

As we drove along I knew we were getting close to the city when outlying farm lands began to give way to a horizon awash in an interminable number of vertical homes.  A contemporary wall, they surround the cities of China. With a one point nine billion population, high rises have solved China’s housing needs. I witnessed the sea of humanity that flows through the streets while in Wuhan; now I observed the sea of high-rises where most live.

On a rainy day









Our driver drove us into the heart of the city and dropped us off at the Bell Tower.  After touring we walked to the Drum Tower.  Both towers speak to the importance of bells and drums in ancient China. As anyone who knows me well knows how important drums and bells are to me. Later I would have to investigate why the Ming and Tang attached so much.

The Bell Tower of Xi’an, one of the most important in China sits at the center of four roads each moving out in the direction of one of the four directions. Years ago I set up a medicine wheel in my backyard with markings on the four directions. The thought of past lives arose again. In my pilgrimage I had hopes of understanding a country and its people. I was finding personal understanding as well.









Following the towers we had a short walk to Xian’s Grand Mosque.  Approaching the mosque I would have thought it was a Buddhist Temple, had I not known better. It impressed me as an example of cultural assimilation.


















Next to the mosque lay the Muslim Quarter. Friends, guidebooks all concur: snacking one’s way along the main road in the quarter is a must, but with lunch lingering I had to forgo the temptation. Still, the spectacle of vendors showing off their skills also made the stroll through the quarter a must. The road laden with lamb dishes, noodles, sweets so tempting, but I managed not to spoil my appetite for the regional food we would have for dinner later. As we watched a woman making noodles, Liu Li explained that the preferred starch in Shaanxi is not rice, but noodles. I could not imagine a Chinese who did not eat rice, but she told us that her father disliked and refused to eat it.




Roasted potatoes. Such artistry!





The day had been so full that a half hour into the quarter my partner more than ready to end our tour, asked that we skip the Yellow Pagoda still on the day’s itinerary and retire to our hotel. Li got on her cell phone and summoned our driver. Then she led us through some side alleys and back streets to a spot where he was able to park and wait for us.




The Gran Melia a worldwide Spanish chain  luxury. I wondered if I had mistakenly made the reservation.  When the receptionist at the desk in the lobby told to go up to the VIP check-in on the fifth floor, I knew my life savings were in jeopardy. But when on the elevator my partner assured me that the rate was 120.00 per night, I bowed in gratitude to the travel goddess for gifting us with the hotel lottery. A similar hotel in the US would have been triple that rate.








Once settled in the hotel we took our appetites to the restaurant serving regional food.

Tofu with spinach and mushrooms


Local fish





Regional dry noodles



With its comfort, good food, and service, the hotel more than lived up to my expectations. I did not expect good service in China (wonder where that came from), but at the Gran Melia and throughout the rest of the trip  I experienced some of the finest service ever in all my personal travels. Warm greetings met us morning and night along with inquiries about our day and our needs. And the strangers who began to serve us would end as friends.















  1. Most fascinating trip. Love those red chairs!

  2. Such an incredible journey Penelope. Thank you for sharing your adventures with us. Truly remarkable insights to a land far away….xoxo Sandie

  3. Gail Roberts Boone

    May 8, 2017 at 10:14 am

    Miss you BIG Time! Thank you for all your adventures. Sending you and James loving thoughts and safe travels wishes. Loving Hug’s, Gail

  4. Maureen Barrett

    April 30, 2019 at 7:43 am

    So interesting! good information and overview for Joe and me as we prepare for our trip to China. So kind of you to share.

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