Xi'an Aura

Thursday, July 31, 2008

I arrived in Xi'an by plane from Shanghai. Or rather, I arrived 50 km from Xi'an by plane and into the city proper by bus. Not far from the central area where I was dropped off is the southern gate of the city walls beside which are two youth hostels. Ori, an Israeli I'd met in Kunming, happened to be in town already and so I went to the hostel he was staying at and checked myself in. In spite of being in a new city with some world-renowned sights, however, I felt myself more checked out than in. It was already July 29 and I was flying home August 5, and I think as time wound down I was starting to mentally prepare. As well, you may have noticed that since northern Vietnam, my pace of travel has been restless, relentless, and reckless. In any case, I arrived wanting to leave, ready to go home, and not at all in the mood for exploring a new place, finding my way around, and so on. But it was July 29, and I had only one week in China left, so regardless of how I felt, I hit the town.

The day's explorations brought me back through to the centre where I'd arrived and then north into the city's famed Muslim quarter. Despite what you may have heard, people in China do have religious freedom. That is to say, they have the right to believe or not believe what they want. What they don't have is the right to organization that in any way that the state feels threatens its total control over the lives and minds of its peoples. So while there are Catholics, for example, you won't be finding catholic schools. While there are Tibetans with their own language, schools in Tibet do not and cannot teach in that language. And so yes, there are practicing Muslims all over China and I was wandering around the streets where many of those living in Xi'an dwell and work. Aside from the mosque, the main sight here is one of my favourites: food. Fried flat bread, lettuce, and potato made into a sandwich with some sort of spread for the low low price of 2 kwai (30 cents). Mmm. Mutton soup with sesame, noodles, peanut, and more? Yum! Honey and sesame desserts mingling with a dry powdery sugar-almond concoction? I wandered the streets for quite a while sampling various fares until I could sample no more. On the walk home, I passed a bunch of people dancing in the streets while a band played and watched and listened for some time, realizing again that I was lucky to be here. Home would be coming soon enough.

The next morning I woke up early, which is to say too late, to check out the Terracotta warriors. They're outside the city and I was booked on a trip through the hostel leaving at 9:00. I grabbed a breakfast to go and was second-last on the bus and then we were off. I'll say here that I never realized how much there is to do around Xi'an, albeit all in different directions. There's a small panda sanctuary here, though it doesn't come close to being in the same league as the more famous one in Chengdu (which just celebrated two cubs, I hear). There's the warriors. There's a collection of impressive imperial tombs. The city itself. And enough more (that I can't recall right now) to make me consider a stop there on my return to China. For now, just the terracotta warriors. On the bus with me was an English expeditionary group that was combining travel with philanthropy and I thought it a great trip. They're doing a project near Lijiang soon and I gave them some tips for the area.

And then, at last, we were at the Terracotta warriors. It's amazing to think that this find was not made until a farmer stumbled on it 30 years ago digging a well, especially when you see the size of the endeavour. Old emperor Qin (China's first emperor, 230 BC) decided when he died he wanted enough soldiers to continue his rule into the afterlife. While my idea of heaven doesn't include a Chinese emperor or stone warriors, he certainly took enough with him to give someone a headache. Almost 8000 soldiers were hand-crafted, painted, and buried in a tomb he had made for himself. In the meantime, he went on to standardize the Chinese characters still in use today, gather the disparate pieces of China under one banner, and start the building of the Great Wall of China. To be fair, he had an early start as a 13-year old. What he left, the wall, the army, and the country, are in various states of disrepair but all remain to this day. The soldiers themselves fought and lost their first battle not long after his death and so many were found in pieces hacked apart by angry peasants but some remained intact. The main location of them, Pit 1, is a sprawling covered area with buildings and a healthy dose of soldiers some repaired, some intact, and some scattered on and in the ground.

The army had structure, and there was a general's tent, there were archers, chariots, infantry, cavalry, and different ranks. Every soldier had a unique and interesting face which itself is a marvel. There are two other pits open to visitors, both of which are neither as big or as populated, but which have their own charms as archaeological sites. After a visit to all three and a factory where souveneirs are made (I got to craft my own soldier but didn't recruit him) it was back to Xi'an for more muslim food and a bit of catchup with Ori. We were both pretty tired and were going to go see a movie but settled on a DVD of Stardust which is a fair adaption of a good book by a great author (Neil Gaiman). My final day in the city on the final day of July was spent visiting sites I'd been too lazy to investigate before. I went up to the bell tower and drum tower, witnessing an excellent performance at the latter, and then grabbed a bike and rode around the 14km of city walls in just under an hour. While it's not especially interesting visually, it is simply one of those things that must be done because it can, and despite the bad bike and cobblestoned thumping I received, it was well worth the effort.

As I returned my bike atop the walls, I heard some very ominous and powerful drums being played in the south gate and went to investigate. Although it was being played by smiley women in costume, it was an imposing sound and I could imagine it striking terror into people attempting to attack the city. It had been a busy day and was growing late, so I went back to the hostel and grabbed a pizza while I caught up on my internet. The pizza took an hour and I was worried about missing the train but I managed to get it finally and shared a cab to the station with two English girls that I'd met earlier. The three of us, after boarding our overnight train to Beijing, my final stop on this oh-so-long tour, played a Chinese dice game in the dining car as the countryside passed unheeded in the night. Of the many, many rounds we played, I did not win even once. It was good-old embarrassing fun and before long I was in my hard-sleeper bunk crying myself to sleep. I woke up and July had turned to August, the people in my cabin had stayed up talking the entire night, and I was in the Olympic city. Beijing awaited, and unlike my arrival into Xi'an, I was thrilled.

Xi'an Photos

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