I put Xi’an on my itinerary for three reasons: The Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin, the medieval walls and bell tower of central Xi’an, and the well-preserved Muslim quarter. All three exceeded my expectations.
On my first morning in Xi’an, I walked around part of the outside of the city wall where older folks practiced Tai-Chi or ballroom dancing (the Chinese seem to love ballroom dancing in city green spaces as I saw it throughout China). Afterwards, I paid my small admission fee and climbed to the top of the wall.
The wall was initially built in the mid-1500’s and has been rebuilt and restored several times since then. On this day, it was chilly and smoggy and not very crowded. I walked about half of the 9 mile rectangular wall which used to protect the central part of Xi’an. Along the way are various watchtowers and gates as well as views both inside and outside the walled part of the city of the non-stop construction of high-rises. Xi’an has a population of about 4.5 million and I wouldn’t be surprised if it doubled in 5 years based on the vast amount of construction going on.
I then headed to the Muslim quarter. Xi’an was once an eastern terminus of the Silk Road as well as one of the Ancient Imperial Chinese Capitals. As such, Muslim traders have made the city their home for hundreds of years. Stepping into this part of Xi’an was like stepping back in time 500 years. If it weren’t for the LED signs and motorbikes it would be hard to tell what year you were in. The number of food stalls, markets, and tiny restaurants seemed endless. The streets were packed with shoppers, tourists, and porters carrying fruits, vegetables, or whole animal carcasses on their backs.
After lunch of lamb stew, I finished wandering around, stopping occasionally for a fresh squeezed glass of pomegranate juice, fresh roasted nuts, or sticky sweet honey-date cake.
The next day I contemplated just heading back to the Muslim quarter to eat some more. Better sense prevailed and I headed to the bus depot to take the local tourist bus to the site of the Terracotta Army. As I was headed to the bus, I met two Australian students, one spoke a little bit of Chinese. When we got to the admissions window of the site, he talked to cashier into giving all three of us student discounts.
About 40 minutes from central Xi’an, the Terracotta Army was discovered by villagers in 1974 while they were digging for a well. The army was created around 200 BC as part of the vast burial ground of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. The site consists of a park, museum, and 4 pavillions. The pavillions remain an archeological site as only a small percentage of the warriors have been excavated and re-assembled. The main pavillion contains the spot where the warriors were first discovered and is the largest part of the site with several thousand warriors excavated and on view. Amazingly, each warrior has unique facial features and each warrior was hand painted. Unfortunately, the paint used disintegrates when exposed to air during excavation so most of the statues are displayed unpainted. However, this in no way diminshes the incredible amount of work and artisan craftsmanship that went into creating these warriors over 2000 years ago.
The area between the bus drop-off and the ticket office is a gamut of newly-built touristy restaurants, jade shops, tchotcke emporia, etc. I quickly strode through this area, ignoring the constant barrage of touts, and headed to a smaller set of food stalls just across the street to enjoy a delicious bowl of hand-pulled noodles with beef. As I was eating, I noticed a stranger watching me as he smoked a cigarette. After I was done with lunch, he asked me if I enjoyed my meal. I said I did and he pointed to the newly-built area, shook his head and spat. He then said, more people should come here and I nodded in agreement just then noticing that I was the only westerner around. He appeared pleased that I enjoyed lunch although I wasn’t quite sure if he worked there or not.
My third day in Xi’an was spent checking out the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda. Sadly, smog was heavy that day and kind of ruined the views. Shaanxi Province of which Xi’an is the capital is also the heart of Chinese coal country so smog was a constant presence.
There was no Uber in Xi’an and taxis ignored me so, on the way to the train station, I got to ride in my first tuk tuk; my butt was sore for the next 2 days.