Wandering In China: Xi'an
Xi'an is riot of colours and scents, with its famous markets lending an air of beautiful, theatrical madness to the streets. It's a mix of old and new—of culture and commerce—to get lost in.
Most famous as the city where the Terra Cotta Warriors hail from, Xi'an is a large city in central China that was once marked the end of the silk road. Kings from many dynasties called Xi'an home over the years (it was the nation's capitol before Beijing took that title), and the old, walled-in quarter of the city retains the feel of another time.
Above: 1) People dancing in the park near the city's old wall, 2) Marked drums on the upper terrance of the Drum Tower.
When we arrived, the rough stone streets, narrow and winding as alleyways, added an air of mystery to the falling night. Women in beautiful dresses danced to ceremonial music in the park, and the city wall (leftover from the times of royalty) was glowing with neon lights. Xi'an teaches sometimes the past and present needn't make peace with each other, since they can be on a collison course anyway. Even following a map and walking the right way, I felt lost.
I was fortunate enough to spend 4 days losing myself here. It's a city easy enough to navigate (all the historic properties are within a stone's throw of each other), but living within the middle of such high contrast, of delicate calligraphy carts and four-floor shopping centres, the softening of my sharp edges happened easily. I found relaxation in the wonder.
We explored the Drum Tower, which feels almost like China's Big Ben: an ancient marker of the passage of time. Each drum is marked for a different time of day, and the view from the tower itself can't be missed. Make the climb up in early afternoon (I'd say noonish) and you can catch a traditional drum show inside the main part of the complex.
Near the Drum Tower is Xi'an's famed Muslim Quarter, which could've been my favorite part of the whole city. Street venders put on a show for those wandering the pedestrian-only streets, pulling dough into noodles while singing folk songs, pounding almonds into taffy candy with large wooden mallets, and flambé-ing things for the sheer theatrics of high flames.
Above: 1) An art gallery with a hilarious translation, 2) Better than French fries? At the Muslim market they fry potatoes whole to eat on a stick. 3)My brother and I were snap-happy of some workers making candy in the Muslim market, and they recruited him to help! 4) Spices for sale in the market.
If you go, do yourself a favor and spend a solid afternoon soaking it all in. From the market, you can also easily find the Xi'an Mosque, one of the oldest in all of China. The Bell Tower, the Drum Tower's fraternal twin, is also within walking distance. Grab some street food to fuel your wanderings!
But of course no trip to Xi'an is complete without seeing the Terra Cotta Warriors. It's quite a journey from the city itself to where the warriors are (expect a cramped, sweaty bus ride, or hire a car for a more luxe experience) but will be every bit as worth it as you can imagine.
For those who don't know, the Terra Cotta Warriors are a life-size replica of an army built by one of Xi'an's emperors. Historians debate why they were built, but it is currently thought that the emperor had his entire palace, his entire life, re-created out of terra cotta and placed in his tomb (it is still being dug up as I blog). The builders were killed upon the tomb's completion to keep it's location secret, and knowledge of the wonder died with them. In the '70s, two farmers digging a well happened to hit their shovels on a terra cotta head, and the ancient wonder was rediscovered.
The site where the Warriors are is stunning- marble floors and gold-leaf writing document their story, but in the true living contrast Xi'an is, we needed to climb through a break in the wrought iron fence to buy our tickets. The actual tomb is well-preserved and unadorned, also.
Many freelance guides will appriach you in the parking lot, and while it can be tempting to dismiss them as poachers, many grew up in the area and are full of stories. Consider them as a cheaper, better option rather than taking a guided tour from the city centre. Our guide was a local and he insisted we paid him after the tour "because if you don't like it, I didn't do my job." His patience, willingness to take group snaps of my family, and endless litany of facts and stories about the site took our visit to the next level.
After a full day of wandering and wondering, we climbed a bus back to the city. I watched the countryside slowly cramp up again with high rises, and the world the Warriors knew felt even farther away.
Our last day in Xi'an we explored the city wall and the old markets near it, which are full of artists selling their watercolours and carts selling fake jade. Both can be just as fun to watch.
Flying out of the city, my thoughts were a jumble of the past and the future. Takeoff came, and I fell asleep just as my mind settled on the now instead.