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Cycling round the City Walls

You can’t get much better than Xi’an – the home of the Terricotta warriors and capital of China from even before the Qin dynasty, and home to still standing pagodas dating back to the Tang dynasty.

That, my readers, is why, during this national holiday, I chose Xi’an over Beijing and Shanghai, and to be honest, the only problem was that I didn’t give myself enough time – two days when it’s national holiday and you’re one in 1.4 billion potential tourists – really is, as they say,– not enough.
 A Pleasant Surprise on the Way There
Knowing before-hand that the population density of Xi’an’s Shaanxi province was only 180/km2, compared to 780/km2 in back in Jiangsu, I was most definitely excited to see some genuine countryside out of the train window once I got down from my sleeping bunk.  
But what was visible from the south side of the train were the most spectacular mountains, and particularly on the journey back, what was also amazing was just how red and orange the soil was, and how whenever a stream or small river passed by, it would form a huge orange gorge in the landscape.  
Both the mountains and the yellow ground reminded me of Turkey, and certainly it had the feel of jetting out west into the Turkic lands of central and western Asia, which is ironic given that Xi’an is geographically still in the Eastern half of China.  
But either way, the Yellow River, where Chinese civilisation started, is most definitely worth its name, and the local vernacular architecture is a wonderful red brick and clay roof version of the traditional Chinese style which I had never seen before. 

Spectacular mountains to the south – in this shot unfortunately
behind a power station, but the train was moving very quickly.
The Yellow Banks of the Yellow River to our north.

Xi’an’s ‘Westerly-ness’ and its Cosmopolitanism
The city’s westerly-ness is literally in its very name – Xi’an Xi means west and an means peace – so ‘Westerly peace.’  Xi’an is indeed westerly in the sense that it is well to the west of China’s present-day core on the eastern seaboard – Beijing, Tianjin, Nanjing, Shanghai.

The entrance to Xi’an’s Muslim quarter with both
native Chinese and foreign Arabic influences.
However, what gives Xi’an a particularly westerly theme is its famed Muslim quarter which is one of the city’s leading tourist attractions in its own right, and its famed Islamic street-food is most definitely worth its good name.
Indeed, Xi’an’s Muslim heritage is arguably a central part of the city’s image to outsiders from the rest of China, despite the fact that Muslims (mainly ethnic Hui but also some Uyghurs) are less than 1% of the city’s population, and the restaurants at the eateries at the terracotta warriors also capitalised on the city’s Muslim identity.
Xi’an, being the oldest of China’s four great ancient capitals, and the starting point of the silk road, has for millennia been known for it’s cosmopolitanism with a multitude of different ethnic minorities – Hui Muslims simply being the largest, and indeed another great site which I unfortunately did not have enough time to see was their Great Mosque, the largest in China, which is perhaps the finest example of Chinese Muslim architecture and its mix of Chinese and Arabic influences.
One dark moment in Xi’an’s history of race-relations, however, was during the 1911 Xinhai revolution, when its ethnic Manchu community of some 20,000 was wiped out overnight by revolutionary forces, motivated, of course, by the fact that Manchu was the ethnicity of the ruling Qing dynasty.
The Terracotta Army Itself
But of course, one cannot talk about Xi’an without paying such an enormous tribute to what has made it so famous for four decades – the Bīng mǎ yǒng – the Terracotta Warriors. 

Imagine, that you are a group of farmers, and one day you happen to discover a collection of what is believed to be well over 8,000 different terracotta sculptures, of whom each soldier’s face is believed to be unique, and which all belongs to the first Emperor of a unified Chinese state, Qin Shi Huang.
Well, one thing that hasn’t changed throughout China’s history is its ability to stun the world with its ability to make and build – be it in the 3rd century BC or the 21st Century AD.  I have to admit, that I did not even know that the figures were life size until I read the guide book before heading there, or just how unique each individual figure was.
What was equally mind-boggling was just how huge the crowds were, it being a national holiday week and all, but even that could not put me off, and as a result I was there from morning to evening.  

A chariot – part of a smaller set that was about a third the size
                                                                                 of life size.
A City with a Fine Centre
Having a fully intact or restored city wall is not something that most European cities can claim, yet that is exactly what is true about Xi’an, with the 14 squared kilometres of the old city being continuously enclosed by it, so much so, that I took the option of hiring a bike to cycle round it – once again had the pleasure of being atop one of the 14th century masterpieces of Emperor Hongwu.
Sure, Xi’an city centre is not quite like that of Tallinn or Carcassonne in that most of the remaining buildings are not centuries old, however at least a lot of the new buildings, particularly those going up now, are in traditional Chinese style – and newly built ‘historic quarters’ can be seen on adjacent to the walls, much like in Nanjing in fact. 

Xi’an’s Drum Tower by Day
The two most famous attractions in within the walls however, are of course, the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower, both of which were also built during the reign of Emperor Hongwu and are located on a close axis in the very centre, with the bells of the Bell Tower being struck to mark dawn, and the drums to mark dusk.  
Unfortunately, I only had time to visit one, and the Drum Tower was the least lengthy to get into and unlike the Bell Tower, did not have a roundabout built around it.  The artwork was truly magnificent – both on the building itself and on the drums – I remember my primary school art club leader telling me just how diverse the colour green could be, and that certainly seemed true to me then.  
And by Night.

The Interior Hall
This particular drum was my personal favourite.

Not only that, but the highest floor of the Drum Tower also served as a collection of Qing dynasty art – mostly vertical landscape paintings, often featuring spectacular cliff faces and waterfalls with pagodas in the background, but also pieces of close-up colourful bird and plant life.  
One other tourist, himself a Chinese expat living in Japan, explained to me, as far as my Chinese could permit me to understand, how landscape paintings from the Tang to the Qing dynasties became progressively lighter in tone as the centuries went by, and I noticed that ‘whiteness’ in such paintings, be it clouds, mist, or water, was often shown by very carefully crafted absences of paint, rather than the use of white coloured paint as in the west. 

One particular screen of very nice vertical landscape
                                                                           paintings.
And speaking of the Tang dynasty (618-907), Xi’an was of course, the capital during said golden age, and two structures dating from that time are the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda and the Small Wild Goose Pagoda, however once again, the problem was, you guessed it, lack of time.  
This is of course I strongly hope that I will head back to Xi’an one day, preferably for another three days, and it’s why I believe that Xi’an should easily be a higher priority for visitors to China than either Beijing or Shanghai, although to be fair, I haven’t given any of them a visit yet.  
See you next time,