Fiona MacCarthy

China Part 2 Xi-An

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Arriving early morning Wednesday we transferred quickly to a nearby fine hotel inside the still (but pulsating with life) walled city, which was capital to China for nearly 2,000 years.

Our trip notes described it as the;

“capital of Shaanxi Province and the largest city in northwest China. Once the imperial centre of China for 2,000 years, Xi'an is now a vibrant, modern city dotted with many interesting historical sites and is a great place to explore. Join your leader on a short walking tour to uncover what was once the start of the ancient trading route of the Silk Road. The city has a wonderful Muslim Quarter, and you’ll wander the narrow streets of shops, lively markets, and groups of white-bearded men in skull caps sipping tea in cafes.

See the City Walls and Gates, the most complete in China, running over 13 kilometres around the city. Xi’an’s Silk Road history means it has an exciting mixture of cultures, especially found in its food options, ranging from delicious Muslim fare to great little dumplings in Chinese restaurants. Maybe choose to visit the Bell and Drum Towers, the former built (according to legend) to restrain the dragons that were causing earthquakes, the latter is (unsurprisingly) full of drums, once used to mark time and warn in emergencies. Perhaps visit the night markets and try many of the tantalising local specialties such as pao mo (lamb broth that you break flat bread into)… hand pulled noodles.”

The walls are indeed impressive and intact: we got to them in early afternoon as part of our walking (and eating) tour, when heat was hitting and roasting the bricks, looked left and right along the walls from the main entrance, visually confirming the length (estimated as correct) and I adjourned to shelter for an icecream. There were the options of bicycles and a golf caddy type vehicle for 10 or so passengers but after the first overnight train + heat there was no way I was setting out to confirm the length. They are impressive and seen too on my own personal walking tour.

Terracotta Army

The city is now best known for the nearby and since 1976 now unburied terracotta army and more work still in progress. The scale of this venture from over 2,000 years ago mind boggling.

The army itself is impressive standing there in their silence unique and near human like but for their silence. The logistics of assembly and burial have been explored in many articles and programmes but for me it was the the concept design and planning, the scale of the endeavour let alone the purpose as then buried.

From our trip notes “discovered in 1976 by farmers digging a well, after being buried for 2,000 years. These clay statues of soldiers, horses and chariots (originally all painted) were commissioned by the emperor Qin Shi Huangdi as part of his mausoleum after he ascended to the throne in 264 BC. Three main pits are open for you to view, where just under 2,000 of the total 6,000 warriors – each individually sculpted from clay, each having a different costume, height, and even facial expressions – stand in battle formation”.

The bronze chariots all 1/3 to actual scale are so wonderfully detailed with even the smallest parts of the bridle cast beautifully in bronze. Why spend so much time and effort to adorn a simple bridle and bury it unless there is a totally committed belief in the end purpose.

Food and beverage: Xi-an

The food quarter as thriving pulsating with locals and Chinese tourists (the majority perhaps) with a scattering of foreigners. Squid and cuttlefish covered in spicy hot chilli sauce and barbequed in front of one were tasty and flavoursome although more for sharing and lets try something else rather than eating the entire generous portion oneself (as I did). Our guide, Francis encouraged shared tasting of other dishes. Street side open air cooking filled the air with aromas.

My own purchase of a chicken wing filled with rice was more rice than meat but quite ingenious as to how they used the parcel of meat as a wrap.

Our first lunch in the city was with a hand pulled noodles restaurant of very low price where through an internal window we could see the chef at work in his kitchen (pictures taken). The noodles were good and tasty.

A later meal of the lamb broth was more bread (we shredded the bread ourselves in miniature pieces) and little meat  (called pao mo in trip notes as quoted above)  A rare disappointment on the journey or was it the absence of alcohol: no! it was not.

At the site of the terracotta army we enjoyed a delightful and varied lunch in traditional style with multiple dishes (more than an average of 1 per person). The chef kindly posed for a picture of mine and I admired the simplicity of his kitchen busy with several groups.

After all the walking about a refreshing cool drink is most appreciated in the evening. By and large the Chinese have not adopted our pub/bar culture and I was pleased to see a pub called “The Wall” next to our hotel. On the first day in town, it was closed at about 5 but opened a bit later with the manager and staff member cleaning the filthy windows. As sole customer, I entered and bought some luke warm beer from the luke warm fridge that was largely empty. A return visit, the following day and my ordered beer was served from a cardboard box of beer whose contents had not entered the luke warm fridge. Finding a pub as this was primarily a pub with only what appeared like tourists from the nearby hotel was rare and perhaps I now understand why. Elsewhere on out trip, beer was good quality in a variety of mainly lager styles and COLD. Not at “the Wall”.

On our walking tour, our tour leader introduced us to a Xi-An burger being a flat breaded pouch of spiced meat cooked up on the street. I paid approx. 15Y (about £1.80) for mine in a main street. The following morning in looking for breakfast and wandering the mainly commercial streets around the hotel I found a single street seemingly five over to stalls and bought another “special burger” for about 40 pence. Loved the simplicity and the flavours as well as interaction with the stall owner.

Also experienced

Drum and Bell towers: yep and getting a bit blasé after Beijing’s.

A few hours at a charity taking care of special needs children where we engaged in games with them and listened to the work being done in a country where there were insufficient funds from government. (Owing aircraft carriers and having a space programme disqualifies countries from personal international charity giving).

Street scenes: On our free day I headed off to the national museum on foot to find a long long queue of people and after about an hour we were told no more being allowed in the museum. I had enjoyed the dancing taking place in the street found accidently and looking like a rehearsal by amateurs for a show. I also enjoyed the speciality pet stores, all small in scale, a street market of antique items, bridal wear shops. Disappointed with the museum and getting there at 9.30am was too late for the free entry. Suggest earlier!

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