Tuesday, July 29, 2008

China Report #5 - Xi'an

The Largest, Most Important Chinese City You’ve Never Heard Of

Everybody knows China is one of the most populated countries in the world. With 1.3 billion people, it's hardly a secret that China is home to some of the largest cities in the world. And, with their economy booming, their cities are growing bigger than ever. When contemplating this immensity, we often think of the teeming masses in places like Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai or Canton (now known as Guangzhou).

However, one city that most people - including myself until a few months ago - overlook or don't even know about is Xi'an (pronounced shee-an). A city of more than eight million, it's larger than virtually every city in the United States. 

Many tourists come to Xi'an as a home base to visit the nearby site of the buried terracotta warrior army of the first Chinese emperor - Qin Shi Huang. And indeed, Xi'an was this emperor's capital. See my post on the warriors hereHowever, there's a lot more going on in Xi'an that visitors ought to take into consideration. As the ancient capital of the country and as the start/finish line of the legendary Silk Road between Europe and Asia throughout the ages, the city has a diverse and developed culture worth checking out. Additionally, Xi'an is on the move in a modern sense too. It's an economic boom town, so in addition to seeing glimpses of China's past, you'll have no choice to be immersed in it's present.

Here are a few of the highlights of Xi'an based on our own experience there in May...

City Center
The old city center of Xi'an is surrounded by a massive wall  (see picture below, left) that traditionally protected citizens, the emperor and the capital of the ancient Chinese empire. For today's visitor, this wall offers not only a great look into history, but also a chance for...bike riding! 

Yep, you can rent a bicycle and ride around the top of the wall. We did this and I highly recommend it. If you want to leave the pedaling to someone else, you can rent a rickshaw and driver (see picture below right). In either case, it's a unique experience, fun and you get to see some things you might not normally. For example, peer over the wall at any point
 and you'll be looking down into courtyards, temples, back yards and parks to observe how the locals live, play and pray. You also get a good look at the modern city radiating out from the walls into the countryside.  At a leisurely pace, one lap around the rectangular wall took us about 1.5 hours.

Also in the old city center is the hussling, bussling and well preserved "Muslim quarter." The city developed a sizable Muslim population because of its promenence as the start and finish of the Silk Road. Today, the neighborhood where many lived is now a twisty, turny labrith of streets, markets, restuarants, shops and more. And the food's good too. 

We had lunch in a traditional restaurant that served an hardy meat soup. Before the arrival of the broth, you are instructed to crumble up a piece of the local flat bread into your bowl. Then, when the good stuff comes, the bread soaks up the flavors and you have an delicious concoction to savor. After lunch, we checked out the market where we bought some small paintings, Mao watches, paint brushes and other items.

Still sticking in the old city, check out the large plaza at the Bell Tower...especially at night. This is the "Times Square" of Xi'an and a good vantage point to watch the locals go by and contemplate the moderization and westernization of China. But more about that in a minute.

Finally regarding the old city, we stayed at the Bell Tower Hotel and you should too. It's a very well located and appointed hotel that caters to westerners and was one of the nicest places we stayed on our entire trip. After several days biking, hiking and guest house living in the countryside beyond Xi'an, it was a welcome refuge.

Giant Wild Goose Pagoda
One of the places we went "in" Xi'an, but outside the old city was the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, a large Buddist complex built for the many travelers traditionally coming into Xi'an over the Silk Road. The central feature is a large tower (see picture at right) that has been built, destroyed and re-built over the centuries. I enjoyed our visit here, but for most people it's probably worth only a short visit and walk around. Credit REI Adventures, however, with including a cultural/religious site in the itenerary.

Also to note, if you have time, go to the Shaanxi History Museum in Xi'an before you go to the terracotta warriors outside the city as the museum gives you good context for what you'll see.

The People
First off, it must be said that everybody we met in Xi'an was extremely nice, glad we were there and full of advice, stories or good cheer. Howerver, I have to also say that I thought the people watching in Xi'an was the best of the entire trip. Why? Well, my perspective is that here in Xi'an the desperation to be western, to be modern and to be "of the world" is more palpable and more evident. Yet, despite desires...they're not quite there yet. So, that makes for some interesting fashion statements, questionable hairdoos, and more. For example, the guy weaking a jacket with "Jonny Boy Rocket Fun" printed on the back, or an middle aged woman wearing a bright yellow t-shirt emblazoned with "This Bud's for You!" or the young Chinese Don Johnson at the bar - complete with 80s blazer, t-shirt, shades, slacks, no socks and boat shoes. That kind of stuff is everywhere in Xi'an - on the streets, in the shops, at the market...everywhere. Also, Kentucy Fried Chicken is HUGE there - packed at most all hours while Starbucks sits empty at 7 a.m. on a workday when back home it'd be packed to the rafters at that hour. 

Also, a note for the future, I have an idea for a short story based on observations similar to the above at a local watering hole in central Xi'an known infamously as...The Moonkey Bar. But that's a story for another time. 

Not to belabor the point, but I think with rising incomes and more access to western styles and pop culture (but not necessarily our politics), many Chinese crave to westernize their lifestyles - or what they perceive a western lifestyle to include. You can see this transformation happening right before your eyes in boomtown Xi'an, and because we all are interested to know how the Chinese will change as their economy develops, I would rank simple observation of the populous as one of the highlights of visiting this city.

And that brings me back full circle on Xi'an. It's probably the biggest Chinese city that most people haven't heard of. But they should. Like many places in China, Xi'an offers both a look backwards into history and forwards into the future. Both just seem more keenly evident and clearly urgent in Xi'an than any other place we visited.

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