Article by XIANEASE
Shaanxi is blowing up. No longer just that province you have to go to if you want to see the Terracotta Army, it’s quickly morphing into a Chinese cultural tourism Mecca. The southeastern district of Qujiang, formerly a place with a neat-looking pagoda next to a Burger King, is now an interminable, impassible ocean of tourist bodies during any holiday. Outside the Xi’an city limits, many lower-profile bits of provincial history and culture are now being built up into big flashy attractions as well, in an attempt to entice anyone who comes to visit to stay and absorb more of the rich tapestry that is Shaanxi. Of all these tourist spots popping up, Bai Lu Cang is one of them.
Bai Lu Cang translates to “White Deer Barn,” the name itself cribbed from Chen Zhongshi’s novel White Deer Plain. Chen’s literary opus follows three generations of two prominent Shaanxi families, Bai and Lu, through the tumult that shook China in the first half of the 20th century (you know, the fall of the imperial dynasties, civil war, invasions, etc). It’s considered a modern classic, an unflinching portrayal of Shaanxi country life in that time period, and was so popular as to be adapted into a film in 2011. I’ve not read it myself because it has yet to be translated into English, nor have I seen the movie, but a synopsis I found online sounded super heavy. Established in 2017, Bai Lu Cang invokes the name, but is not that.
Bai Lu Cang is a fascinating amalgam of every tourism spot you’ve ever encountered in China. Though it’s quick to greet you with the architecture of a traditional Chinese village, that illusion is soon broken when a towering, conical green cage comes into view. “That looks like one of those things that people ride their motorcycles on the side,” I commented idly. One of my companions replied, “That’s exactly what it is.” Two hours later, we caught the second of four daily exhibitions of three local dudes riding motorcycles in formation along the walls of the cage.
Before that motorcycle show, however, we used our time to explore the grounds. The “traditional Chinese village” motif is strong, but it stands shoulder to shoulder with a street more similar to an early 1900s city, complete with vintage kitsch ads for “New York cigarettes.” Those areas are also surrounded by an amusement park, of sorts, and an “aquarium” and “zoo” that I felt happier not going into. Also of note are the two shooting galleries where you can get on some artillery and fire rubber slugs at ring targets (or tennis balls, if you’re lucky enough to be on the howitzer). My favorite part might have been the small pond that had all manner of rickety crossings, because it had the courage to forgo netting and allow clumsy visitors to fall into the water. The most substantial part of Bai Lu Cang, to my eyes, was the gauntlet of food vendors. Roujiamo and liang pi were there, as to be expected, but were surprisingly a small fraction of all the food on offer. Just as an example, I had a beef soup whose recipe is native to Fujian province and was kind of tempted by a corndog stand; I was decidedly not tempted by whatever a “fish jia mo” was.
This is kind of a running theme for Bai Lu Cang—though its name calls to mind a quintessential Shaanxi-ness, its attractions generally lack any distinct local flavor. Now, it might seem like I’m going negative on it, but I’m not. All things considered, it’s kind of a bizarre place that I kind of think you have to see. Like me watching the motorcycle daredevils, I’m certain you’ll see at least one thing there that’ll make it worth the trip. There’s a bus from the city that goes to Bai Lu Cang, and it’s free to enter so you risk very little by taking a day trip out there (they told me there was a “temple fair” going on, and I didn’t see any temples but they charged me 20RMB to enter anyway, though that’s still pretty cheap). “It’s just a new place that wants to attract people to go, and they go because they like to take pictures,” a colleague told me after our visit. I can’t disagree, but just calibrate your expectations properly. You’d go to the Terracotta Army to see where China has been. You should go to Bai Lu Cang to see where it’s at now.
Know any other interesting places in and around Xi’an? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org