I have mixed feelings about my experience in Xi’an. On one hand, this city, almost in the literal center of the Chinese boundary (and metaphorically the center where it all began), is a bustling metropolis that has cultural icons at every turn, in a way not very different from Istanbul. On the other, one is too quickly distracted by the sheer chaos manifested on the streets – the public sphere has been completely taken over as vehicular parking lots, tuk-tuks drive in whatever direction they do so feel (against the flow, on the sidewalk), and the sound of motorbikes honking at you to get out of the way gets old very quickly. It’s a tough call to say whether I liked it or not: it’s nice to go visit for a few days, but I feel that it’s a bit rough overall. Maybe the hyper-rapid growth of expanding China’s Western cities is to blame, I don’t know.
The train ride from Shanghai is a total of 13 peaceful hours, and the bunks were exactly the same as those to Guilin. Arriving in Xi’an I was overwhelmed by the disaster of unplanned public transportation. The Long-Distance Bus Station and the Train Station are found in the same plaza, and on this plaza there is a place to cue for the public buses, taxis, clandestine taxis, tuk-tuks, motorbikes – anyone with wheels will offer you a ride. The local buses have to u-turn in a very limited amount of space, and pedestrians do not follow any form of rules regarding sidewalks.
Instead of waiting in line for the taxi, I felt adventurous and took the tuk-tuk. Little did I know what it meant to take a tuk-tuk in Xi’an. After seeing life flash before my eyes a few times, I finally arrived safely to the hostel and finally met up with Laura (my Panamanian friend from Bauhaus who had done the same 13-hour trip, this time from Beijing), and her friend Jonas.
The crazy Tuk-Tuk driver driving the wrong way
Jano’s hostel is found in a newly-renovated Xintiandi-esque part of the city, with the exception that instead of high-end retail, there were artists selling more of the same traditional Chinese silk paintings that have either a tiger, a flower, or mountains as its subject. Situated at the South Gate of the city wall, the main sights of Xi’an are at most a 15-20 minute walk from our hostel. Walking in this neighborhood is rather pleasant, but unfortunately at night-time all the stores close and the neighborhood becomes lifeless. Not a big issue, because about 200 meters away we’re at the bustling nightlife street of Xi’an, of which we had the pleasure to discover our second night.
The door of our Hostel in the Art Quarters
The south gate illuminated at night (i think it was because of the moon festival)
Upon my arrival, we proceeded to have lunch at a place that blends a BBQ place with a Hotpot place –we picked our ingredients, and then proceed to put them in a fondue-style way into either a spicy broth or a mild fish broth. The greatest highlight of Xi’an is walking through the Muslim quarters, a neighborhood that is filled with street vendors, a Souk not much different than those in Turkey, and Chinese-style mosques. At first glance, it smells and feels like any other typical Chinese market street. Looking a little closer, there is so much more richness – from the way people dress, to how they walk, how they interact… it’s just a different place like no other I’ve seen here in China. You can sense the influence of the Silk Road (Xi’an was the starting point) while still having a contemporary feel.
Hot Pot Xi’an Style
Food vendors at the Muslim Quarters
The Souk-like area in the Muslim quarter
the Great Mosque of Xi’an – Hard to tell it’s a mosque right?
looking more closely, you can see the Koran inscriptions on the gates in Arabic
And the level of detail is different than the Chinese aesthetic
The prayer hall
Carpets ready for prayer – i do not know if this mosque closes up for services or not – it’s trampled by tourists, so I am pretty sure that it’s only a relic now more-so than an actual spiritual space.
After roaming the Muslim quarters, we headed to the Bell Tower, a historic building that used to keep the time the old times. Axially situated north of the South gate, it has become an island surrounded by a 4+ lane highway, similar to the Arc du Triumph in Paris. Unfortunately, it lacks the charm that the landmark in Paris evokes. There are no tree-lined streets leading to it but rather a ton of asphalt with a little more concrete, flanked by shopping centers and Starbucks on the side.
The Bell tower at dusk
Bell performance at the Bell Tower
The ornate inside decoration of the Bell Tower
The plaza of the bell tower serves as a parking lot during the day. What a pity.
Rain+poorly designed public transportation = chaos (view from the bell tower)
After a long and soggy day (it rained ALL DAY, without end), we decided to call it an early night and decided to have dinner at the Belgian Bar/Restaurant directly adjacent to our Hostel. Calling it an early night, we prayed for better weather on day 2.
Someone up there listened, because we couldn’t have asked for a more pleasant day on Monday. I got up a little early and headed over to the city wall. The city itself is bound by a well-preserved (perhaps recreated/partially preserved) Ming-dynasty wall. The perimeter of the wall is somewhere around 13-14 km, but the city of Xi’an extends far beyond the old city, with soaring skyscrapers no different than those in Shanghai (ok, maybe a little lower). I happened to arrive at the same time there was a performance of drums, kung fu, and soldiers marching, so that was a bit of a plus.
The wall right outside our Hostel
Live Kung Fu performance
Followed by the military performance
The wall with autumnal colors trickling in
the scales of the buildings blow my mind sometimes… to think that the existing city wall is only a fraction of the real thing back in the day.
You can rent out a bike and go around the wall with ease
I met up again with Laura and Jonas and we decided to trek our way to the Xi’an Horticultural Expo, which, according to the website, was a showcase of different technologies, cultural landscapes from around the globe, and just seemed like something cool and ‘different’ than the usual things you’d do in Xi’an. After all, the key reason why people come to Xi’an in the first place is to go to the Terracotta Warrior excavation site. Given the weather, we decided to postpone our site visit to the Terracotta Warriors in order to take advantage of being outside and see nature (something that Shanghai gravely lacks).
The Horticultural Expo site was as kitschy as it could possibly be, and it seemed as if there was little/no consideration to any of the elements that make Chinese Gardens unique. Rather, a really cool-looking architectural form designed in plan moved people from one kitschy place to another. After traversing about ½ of the park in about 3 hours (the park was enormous), we decided to call it a day and head back to Xi’an. It wasn’t a day wasted because we got to be outside and experience nature, but….it wasn’t what I imagined it would be.
The entrance looked somewhat promising – with the exception that it was poured concrete with very little landscape (that was in the periphery)
The highlight of the Expo – but then again, it’s not integrated with any landscape
LED installation that i bet looks cool at night
the ticket was in the shape of a passport – kitschy but ok….. it’s an expo, makes sense
yuck. Steel and Glass Pagoda as the key landmark – it’s as if the architecture wants to break out of the tradition, but it’s somehow bound to forms that are, in today’s world, somewhat meaningless
cool steel sculpture
and… finally some landscaping, not the nicest of kinds, not much of it, but ok…
This place was at the height of ridiculous – a bird paradise, where birds are confined to a small area and you can feed the birds. The people working the stations were busy on their phones and clearly didnt want to be there either.
Bird on lady’s head, this time she’s listening to music
The bamboo pavillion was made entirely out of bamboo – i thought this was actually the nicest of them all.
The main attraction – can’t say what’s inside because the line was too long
fountains at the exit of the park provide some ventilation to the heat island effect caused by all that concrete…
Arriving back in the city center we had clear, blue skies and a perfect light to go back and indulge in the narrow streets of the Muslim quarters once again. We first headed to the Drum Tower, with hopes that there would be an afternoon performance (nope, we arrived too late). After walking around for a while, we settled down at a Chinese BBQ-style dinner restaurant, not much different than a Korean BBQ place (with the exception of all the side dishes).
I am glad that there’s at least this patch of greenery between the bell tower and the drum tower. It’s the shopping mall behind the bell tower that ruins it for me…
view of the entrance to the Muslim Quarters
More street food
steam and smoke
a rice meal
dinner – bbq style lamb
People were cuing to get one of these – it was a lamb filled fried “arepa”
the Drum tower at night
That evening, we headed out to the “nightlife” street near the South Gate of Xi’an. It was a convenient 5-minute walk from our Hostel, and while there we got to experience a little of the Xi’an night culture of live music (in Chinese and in Broken English). It’s surreal to listen to a small Chinese girl sing an acoustic version of Lady Gaga’s Poker Face in a small hole-in-the-wall bar in the middle of China.
Great little place near our hostel
The following day we were cursed again with some serious rain and hazy skies. Not a problem, as we decided to finally make our way to the destination most people come to Xi’an for: the Terracotta Warrior Army. We finished up our European-style brunch (with eggs, cheese, toast, muesli, fresh fruit) at a nearby hostel and worked our way with public transportation to the Terracotta Army.
Hostel for breakfast
Maybe it was the weather, maybe it was the fact that I started to catch a cold, but the Terracotta Army, being wonder of the world in itself, was really disappointing. I mean, it’s impressive, and I am lucky to be one of the people that gets to see it, but I guess there’s a lot to be desired when it comes to “experiencing” the tomb where the Soldiers are kept. Rather, we are all basically limited to take the same picture that one can simply download off of Wikipedia, and, if you have a strong enough camera lens, you can actually see the nuances of each figurine. If not, then it becomes a really limiting experience. That being said, it’s still insane to think that the Soldiers on display are actually a mere fraction of those that are found underground.
This is tomb 3 – from the exterior it’s just grim, windowless, daunting. Looks more like a prison with minaret towers.
Tomb 2: another Prison-like space
Tomb 3: this time with an airplane hangar over the roof.
Close-up of the warriors
and even further
its scale is awesome, but it really lacks an experiential feel to it…
no 2 faces are the same
view from the side
The rain kept hitting us hard for the rest of the day. We then proceeded to hire a taxi to drive us to the Tomb of Emperor Jingdi, a museum Khee Poh took me to when I studied abroad in Hong Kong in 2006. Funny thing – the Lonely Planet considers this place as “Xi’an’s most underrated highlight” and they couldn’t be more right. We were essentially one of 8 tourists in the museum, which totally blows my mind, since in this tomb one actually gets up-close and personal with the excavation pits. The museum is designed with glass catwalks where one hovers above the excavation sites. Soon afterwards, the catwalks become glass walls and then you’re actually inside one of the pits. It’s hard to explain, but it really has that extra “something” that the Terracotta Soldiers site gravely needs.
Museum of Emperor Jingdi – right from the entrance, you can feel that there was thought put into the lighting, the scale….
the lighting is not overpowering, but it has an impact
Glass floor so you can walk over it
Cool how it gives you a glimpse of life back in time.
the Hologram museum movie at the end… a bit kitschy, but still cool to watch.
The taxi driver was kind enough to wait for us while we visited the site (again, this place was in the middle of nowhere). Unfortunately, we arrived right around 6 pm, at the peak of rush hour, making the trek home a bit congested. That night we called it an early evening, as we had to make our way to our next destination: Tianshui/Lanzhou/Xiahe. More of that to come later.