A gate on the market lined "Ancient Street"

Fast food restaurants visible under the arch of the old city walls

The joys of buying train tickets

The Bell Tower in front of a shopping mall and behind a car advertisement

Neon lit street in the Muslim Quarter

Fried quail eggs on skewers with choice of dipping sauces - very good

Variety of foods at a market stall

Meat on a stick galore

Start up the paved pathway to the top of Mt. Hua Shan

Waterfall down the rocks

Plenty of good luck wishes

Up the steps to the top

Up the steps to the top

That's the beginning of the trail down in the valley

Looking towards the South Peak from the North Peak of Hua Shan

Entrance to the cable car station

View from the base of the cable car station

Excavated terracotta warriors

Excavated terracotta warriors

Restoration in progress

Partly excavated Pit 2

One of the recovered bronze chariots

Stone helmet armor

Big Goose Pagoda from the shopping area on the south side

Intricate tile work on the roofs

Gold Buddha statues

Big Goose Pagoda

Xi'an, China

Past, Present, and Future

April 26, 2012

But I won't cry for yesterday

There's an ordinary world

Somehow I have to find

And as I try to make my way

To the ordinary world

I will learn to survive

- Duran Duran

When you think of Xi’an what likely comes to mind is the famed archeological find of the army of terracotta warriors, considered to be among the finest in the world. In addition to that there is the sizeable Muslim Quarter within an old city area that is surrounded by re-created traditional city walls. What probably does not come to mind is that this seemingly historic city has over 4.5 million people. Other than the key historical landmarks the city seems to be dominated by shopping malls and the streets are slammed with ever-present traffic gridlock. The juxtaposition of the past and the present, for example, the fast food restaurants just past the old city walls or the neon lights in the narrow alleyways of the Muslim Quarter, make for an interesting place.

The main attraction, the army of the terracotta warriors is one of the more touristy places I have been, even by Chinese standards. To reach the museum you are forced to walk through a labyrinth of tacky souvenir stores and overpriced restaurants all offering nearly the same things. The huge numbers of tour groups and independent tourists make navigating this a mess as people are inexplicably distracted by the bright and shiny objects and can’t resist stopping abruptly to look without notice. Once you are finally inside the complex there are three pits of archeological finds with only the first pit having been excavated and restored to any semblance of its past glory. Towards the back of the first pit there are people actually working on restoring and rebuilding more soldiers, making for quite the real life jigsaw puzzle. The site must have been a spectacular vision in its time with several thousand figures accurately sculpted and ordered according to rank, just as they would have been in a real army. In their time the figures were painted in colorful pigments only adding to the glory. Pits 2 and 3 show only partially excavated areas with jumbles of broken terracotta fragments scattered about, the result of years of weathering and exposure to the forces of nature. There is also a small museum with a few interesting pieces like two bronze chariots that were unearthed from the ruins.

Xi’an is also famous for its Big Goose Pagoda, a large pagoda on the south side of the city that, if the air quality were any better than abysmal, would loom over the city and offer commanding views. Sadly, and this is the reality of modern China, the large tower is barely visible from 3 kilometers away. On the south side of the pagoda, at the main entrance there is a long boulevard with higher end shopping malls and restaurants and a new upscale Westin hotel. Around the pagoda is a Buddhist temple where workers were actively recreating some of the detailed paintings by hand.

Among the more interesting areas of the city is the Muslim Quarter. There is a large mosque on the southern end of the Muslim Quarter, from which lead streets lined with market stalls selling all types of street food, fruits, vegetables, nuts, clothes, souvenirs, and other trinkets. At nighttime the neon lights come on and the crowds come out to stroll the narrow streets and alleyways, sampling the food and taking in the sights and smells. Some of the more unique food items I had included fried quail eggs on skewers lacquered with either spicy pepper sauce or peanut sauce, square cakes made with a type of peanut flour that crumbled in your mouth, cold noodles and vegetables with a blend of soy sauce, peanut sauce, and chili oil, and small sandwiches of chopped lamb. There are also large assortments of freshly grilled meat on skewers, a more traditional street food.

To escape the crowded streets of Xi’an I decided to take a day trip to Mt. Hua Shan, one of five sacred Buddhist mountains located about 100 kilometers away. The near vertical stone walls rise straight up from the ground and culminate in a series of peaks, each successively higher. There are a few options for getting to the top but I opted for the 6 kilometer hike up a decent grade paved path that before long turned into a steeper and steeper array of very narrow stairs carved into the stone of the mountain. The steepest sections were almost like ladders with chains on the side to help people make their way upward. Nonetheless it was a pretty walk up through the canyon until reaching the top of the North Peak. It is a popular route but even still I was surprised to see so many people clearly not prepared for something so rigorous, in fact I didn’t expect it to be so challenging. Luckily the weather was nice, otherwise the stone stairs would no doubt have been slippery and treacherous in inclement weather. As I was heading back to Xi’an in the afternoon I didn’t have time to ascend to the higher South Peak. Judging from the view of the trail – a winding length of stairs along the spine of the mountain – and the fact that I could barely see the bottom of the mountain from where I was through the smoggy air, I don’t think I missed too much. Being somewhat lazy and wanting a different view I opted to take the cable car down to the bottom and save my knees from having to go down the same set of stairs.

On the journey back to Xi'an the bus wound through the outskirts of the city and I could see the Xi'an of the future in the form of partly completed high-rise buildings lining the skyline, highlighted by their yellow construction cranes. At first this seemed impressive until I looked around and realized that there were already several finished high-rise buildings standing empty, waiting for tenants. It's was hard to understand the amount of new construction when it did not seem like the existing space was even being utilized. This boom in construction is perhaps creating a property glut that may spell difficulties for the future if growth slows or financial difficulties arise.

Being away from the city was nice, even for a few hours, and despite having only been in Chinese cities for a week now I am very much looking forward to smaller towns and more peaceful settings. Hopefully they will not be far off, tomorrow I will board a train heading west to Urumqi, a city about half the size of Xi’an and supposedly the most inland city in the world.