The city walls still stand around the heart of this city that was once the end of the Silk Road. It makes navigation that much easier: if you go too far in any direction you’ll eventually run into a wall. The city proper now extends far beyond, with new developments, housing and tourist centers popping up wherever there is space. The hostel was way above average, with clean linens and towels, a bathroom with new hardware and decent water pressure, and a flatscreen tv with a satellite connection receiving an English movie channel from Macau. It was heaven.
The weather has been terribly hot and humid, making venturing outside for long stretches less appealing, but we really wanted to bicycle around the city along the ramparts of the city wall. It was a great excursion, and oriented us well with a birdseye view. From the north wall you can see the chaos of the train station; from the west there is a big park outside the wall, while the maze of the Muslim Quarter is visible on the inside. From the south, the Bell Tower stands in the middle of downtown, packed with shopping and tourism. The east is more quiet and residential. Every now and then there was a stop to look at the traditional, ornate guard towers above the four gates and four corners.
On our daily walking and bus journeys, we saw most of the well-known sites. From the 14th century, the historic Bell Tower marked the day’s beginning, while the nearby Drum Tower sounded out the night. While still in the middle of town, the Temple of the City God (Chenghuang) was a little off the beaten path. It’s dedicated to the deity (a general called Jixin in life) who controls everything from the weather and harvests to the gender of offspring. This Taoist temple’s rather decrepit state made it feel more authentic, though there seemed to be a reconstruction project going on in the furthest hall back. We especially liked the ornate, detailed wooden carvings that took up every available inch. From the temple, we wandered the Muslim Quarter exploring all the interesting eats. There is a big mosque in the middle that combines Islamic and Chinese features.
A few miles south of the walls, the Big Goose Pagoda (dating from the 7th century) is surrounded by a big temple complex and gardens with sculptures and paths. It was a nice place for an afternoon stroll and a look at the huge fountain show in the plaza.
When we stopped for ice cream after the show, a friendly little girl asked where we were from. This is quite common, with lots of people wanting to practice some English, but when we answered, she said “Oh, I’m from Maryland!” She was 10, and visiting relatives with her mother for summer vacation. The mother’s friend ended up inviting us for dinner at his restaurant, in a big development project just underway a few miles out. We were treated to an amazing feast! It was all shared, and spun around on the big lazy susan that took up most of the table. Here is what we remember of the dishes: cold, sliced mountain yam with strawberry glaze, a mound of purple yam with blueberry, green salad in a delicious vinegarette, fried corn, pork spare ribs, spicy chicken skewers, grilled lungfish, sweet and sour squirrelfish, a tofu and egg dish served on a bed of crispy rice strings, and mushroom soup featuring six tasty mushroom varieties. Dessert was a hot durian pastry. That fruit that everyone shudders to approach because of the smell was transformed into a heavenly tidbit. It was a truly memorable meal, the best we’ve had in China, and we hope to have the chance someday to meet Mr. and Mrs. Lian (who may soon be moving to Vancouver) and Shi-li and her daughter Cindy again.
Of course our visit to Xi’an included a visit to the Terra Cotta Warriors. This underground army was discovered in 1974, and is now one of the most famous archaeological sites in China if not the world. There are plenty of sources for history and details from the experts, and we tried to educate ourselves before we arrived. The scale of the pits is awesome, the largest containing 6000 warriors and horses. There are archers, chariot drivers, cavalrymen and all ranks of soldiers, each with different faces, hair styles and clothing details, all in battle formation, set to protect the tomb of their leader, Qin Shi Huang for eternity. Even the throngs of tourists jostling for position and vendors pushing their overpriced drinks and food couldn’t take away from the specialness of the site.