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China Deep Dive: Xi'an

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The oddest thing about being in Xi'an was that we were never supposed to come to Xi'an on this trip. We had a pretty clear idea of what we wanted to see in China but when I made the itinerary I began from the ends and worked my way to the middle. I knew we were arriving in Hong Kong and would be going to Fujian next so I planned out those dates. Since we had decided to spend our final week in Hangzhou I worked backwards to schedule four days apiece in Chongqing and Chengdu. What I didn't realize until I was going over my notes in Hong Kong was that I had failed to make those two ends meet and we had a three day gap in our itinerary. I guess it's quite a luxury to be able to take such long trips that I can accidentally leave three days unscheduled. I would have loved to have those three days back to spend in Türkiye but that trip was already in the past. Mei Ling and I had to brainstorm quickly to find a place to spend that extra time between Fujian and Chengdu. Hunan would have been great but I had a long list of places I wanted to see in that province and three days wouldn't have been close to enough. Southern provinces such as Yunnan and Guangxi were set aside for a future combination trip with Vietnam. I'm not sure who thought of Xi'an first but it immediately felt right. All I knew about the city was the famous clay warriors, so three days would give us one full day for those and one full day to explore the city. It might not be enough for a complete exploration but we could always go back if we liked it.

This was our first domestic flight inside China and it went quite smoothly. At the luggage carousel there was a video feed of the loading area, perhaps to keep the baggage handlers on their best behavior. Once we were outside we were besieged by hawkers and taxi drivers who Mei Ling ignored completely. We found a isolated spot where she could concentrate on her ride-hailing app but the prices she was quoted for our group of five were extremely high. Things were looking bleak so she decided to return to the group of hawkers and negotiate and ultimately came away with a price that satisfied her. It was a forty minute ride from the airport to our apartment next to the Anyuanmen metro station in the dead center of the city. There was a small but lively night market on the sidewalk in front of the station so once we had dropped off our bags we came back down for dinner. The staple of these markets is skewers but we were able to find enough variety for a complete meal. I had only seen one other Caucasian over six days in Fujian but I never felt like I was the object of much attention. Similarly here in Xi'an there were no Caucasians on the street but I didn't feel conspicuous. That changed for a moment when a local who was standing next to me waiting for his skewers to be cooked suddenly turned to me and asked "What are you doing here?" in an extremely surprised tone. It was quite strange because he had been standing there for several minutes seemingly oblivious to my presence. I gestured towards my family which seemed to assuage his confusion somewhat. He asked me a few more questions in broken English but we really couldn't communicate very much. The short episode made me aware that the reason I didn't feel noticed might be more to do with the reticence of the locals rather than disinterest. It didn't trouble me either way to be a celebrity or a nonentity as I was generally more preoccupied with my family than with the people on the street, but it had seemed a little odd that people were less curious about me in China than they had been in Türkiye.

In some way Xi'an was the opposite of Xiamen. The city is deep inland and has no river or other significant bodies of water anywhere near the center, with the exception of some ponds within the parks. Since the presence of water is one of my major criteria in judging cities I had no illusions that Xi'an would prove to be one of my favorite cities in China. Xi'an is still quite interesting however because it is one of the few Chinese cities whose original walled core remains intact. A walled city was built here in the sixth century and was originally called Daxing before being renamed Chang'an. This city was largely destroyed at the beginning of the tenth century and was rebuilt as Xi'an with a new wall in 1370. It was in front of the north gate of this wall that we found ourselves on Tuesday morning as we prepared to explore the city's famed Muslim quarter. The name of the gate is Anyuanmen which means Perfect Harmony Gate and it has a multistory building above it whose purpose was unclear. It looked almost like an office building but the symmetric rows of alcoves within the brick facade seemed to end in solid walls despite their superficial resemblance to windows.

Once inside the walls we soon encountered a mosque called Xiao Pi Yuan, one of the oldest Islamic buildings in Xi'an. The peaceful, antiquated interior provided a stark contrast to the pervasive noise and bustle of the walled city.

As we migrated deeper into the walled city the streets became more crowded with both people and vehicles. We had reached the Muslim quarter, the historic center of Hui Muslim culture in Xi'An for more than a thousand years. During the Tang Dynasty many Muslims migrated here from central Asia because of trade along the Silk Road. The major streets of the neighborhood, especially Beiguangji Jie and Hongbu Jie, are lined with restaurants and food stalls as well as a variety of stores selling Muslim goods and souvenirs. The atmosphere was that of a giant block party or food festival except that it seemed that this was just a regular weekday morning for the neighborhood. Despite the large crowds of pedestrians there were countless motorcycles and tuk-tuks zipping through the streets at an alarming pace and honking their horns constantly. As is typical in China vehicles had the right of way and pedestrians moved to the side good naturedly and without paying much attention.

It was really enjoyable to get lost within all the chaos and study the wide variety of snack foods available on the street, much of it being prepared by the locals in traditional Muslim clothing as we watched. Beef and lamb dishes were quite popular and there was no pork to be seen in keeping with the tenets of Islam.

From the amount of photos being taken and the lack of momentum among the pedestrians it was clear that most of the people in the streets were tourists from other parts of China. That meant of course that there were plenty of tourist traps including the ubiquitous fish pedicures. The garra rufa fish used in these spas are harvested in the Middle East and suck flakes of dead skin from feet that are submerged in their tanks. Human skin isn't their preferred diet so the fish have to be starved in order to achieve the desired effect. Cleo had done this before in China eight years earlier but of course she didn't remember it and implored us to be given an opportunity to try it again. I'm not a big fan of the practice but since all three of them had become excited about it we decided to let them have the experience.

A large section of the Muslim quarter is occupied by the Great Mosque of Xi'an. As with many cultural relics in China the complex has been revised and reconstructed so many times that it is difficult to know which century the individual structures date from. The last major reconstruction was in 1384 during the Ming Dynasty. Having just arrived from Türkiye we were quite well-versed in the traditional Arabic style of mosque architecture and the Great Mosque bore no resemblance to this whatsoever. Had we not known we were in a mosque we probably would have mistaken it for a typical Buddhist temple.

The streets adjacent to the mosque were largely devoted to cheap clothing and souvenirs. The forests of bronze figurines were particularly impressive. We bought some faux Red Army outfits for the boys and then looked for a way back to the more interesting streets of the quarter.

The Drum Tower marks the southern edge of the Muslim quarter. Along with the similarly-designed Bell Tower it was built during the Ming Dynasty at around the same time as the Great Mosque. The day would begin when the bell in the Bell Tower was struck at dawn and end when the drum within the Drum Tower was beaten at sunset. Extending northward from the Drum Tower is Beiguangji Jie, a wide pedestrian street with the heaviest concentration of tourist restaurants and food stalls. Here we found a quick lunch to sustain us through the afternoon.

Now that we had spent some time in the quarter we felt less overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of things to see and taste all around us. We slowed down to let the kids have some liquid nitrogen puffs which are pretty popular all over China. One impressive snack involved round balls of some meat encased in a skin of beef tripe. I didn't have enough appetite left after lunch to try it.

We made a small fee to see the preserved centuries-old home of a wealthy local family. The complex was quite large and included meeting areas and several courtyards as well as the living quarters.

Another popular business on Beiguangji Jie was the sale of pinkish freshwater pearls. These are made by the insertion of tissue grafts containing hard beads into large freshwater mussels, where they serve as nuclei for pearl formation. In front of some of the shops they were harvesting the pearls from the mussels. They were large, grey mollusks that smelled like a swamp when opened and bore little resemblance to their edible cousins. For a fee Cleo was permitted to choose her own clams and the pearls were harvested in front of us and strung into a custom-made bracelet.

By this point we were a little tired of the crowded and frantic Muslim quarter so we walked about ten minutes to another food street within the walled city called Sajin Bridge. There wasn't much here that we hadn't already seen in the Muslim quarter but it was pleasant to have a change of venue. One treat that we hadn't encountered before was rolled ice cream, made with sweetened condensed milk and heavy cream to allow the mixture to spread out and rapidly freeze on a chilled surface before being rolled up without cracking. The process was developed in Thailand but has quickly become popular throughout East Asia.

Wandering through food streets in the Muslim quarter had been a good way to spend half the day but we didn't want to squander our only full day in Xi"an. The most interesting sight outside of the walled city seemed to be the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. This seven story structure was originally built in the early eighth century during the Tang Dynasty and then reconstructed after a massive earthquake in 1556. According to legend the pagoda was built in the very spot where a wild goose dropped from the sky just as a hungry monk was wishing that Buddha would bestow on him sonething to eat. There is a large fountain occupying the square north of the pagoda that features a sound and light show every evening although it seemed unlikely we would be staying that long. Once again Mei Ling had a hard time locating a cab large enough for the five of us on her app. Meanwhile a tuktuk driver had spotted us and we clambered on despite my misgivings. It ended up being a twenty minute ride through loud traffic and exhaust fumes but at least Mei Ling was able to get an unobstructed picture of the Bell Tower.

The pagoda is part of the Daci'en Temple which contains several large buildings, some of which have been converted into food halls and miniature malls. One of them housed a glamour studio similar to the one on West Street in Quanzhou, except that the costumery involved traditional dresses and make up along with the hairdos. Cleo got in on the action as well this time meaning that I had about an hour to wander around the complex with Ian. At one point a boy began asking Ian in Chinese about the book he was reading and I was surprised at how well Ian was able to acquit himself as he's always been the shakiest of the three when it comes to his mother's native language. Eventually Mei Ling and Cleo emerged in full regalia and we went to the south side of the pagoda to meet another one of Mei Ling's old friends who is now living in Xi'an.

Mei Ling's friend Mimi eventually showed up along with her young son. By now it was late enough that it kind of made sense to hang around until the fountain show started at eight thirty. Meanwhile the area south of the pagoda was steadily filling with people until it began to feel as though we had stumbled upon a major holiday festival. I asked Mimi about it and she told me that it was like this every night. I couldn't really figure out the draw that would bring out such a prodigious number of people but I suppose this is what one might expect living in the midst of such a high density of people. There were probably crowds like this or worse in the Muslim quarter now as well. Nothing was really happening around the pagoda so we followed a river of people into an open area to the south with trees decorated with lanterns and LEDs. We could see that there were some stages with people in costume on them but it wasn't possible to get close enough to see what was going on. The crowds grew so thick that I became worried the kids would get trampled so we made our way to the edge of the human river and walked back towards the pagoda.

The water and light show at the fountain was due to begin soon so we began to hunt around for a good viewpoint. Others already had the same idea and there was a thick ring of people coating the perimeter fence. We identified a bridge as the optimal location to find a spot for the kids and ultimately sent them through the legs of the adults in the hope they could reach the fence. I knew there was no chance that I would be able to get through but eventually I was able to see Cleo in the front and she signaled to me that all the kids had made it. The show didn't begin until nine, half an hour after the starting time my research had indicated. It was probably a good thing I was off because a half hour later and we probably wouldn't have been able to get on the bridge. I was able to see most of the show on the screens of the phones people were holding over their heads, and Mei Ling was able to get a much better angle than I was.

By the time the fountain show was over all I could think about was getting out of the complex. First we had to get back to the studio to return the costumes which of course meant more crowds and lines. Once we were finally back at the northern end of the temple it was clear there were too many people to even think about getting a taxi. There was a metro station right there but there were hundreds of people outside and there were police preventing them from pushing their way in. It looked like it would probably take at least an hour to even get to the platform, assuming we didn't get crushed in the process. Finally we decided to hunt for a restaurant instead hoping the crowds would dissipate somewhat while we were getting dinner out of the way.

We had to walk around quite a bit before we came across a suitable restaurant. The meal was unmemorable but we were glad to be out of the madness at the temple. Afterwards there was still quite a large crowd outside the metro entrance in front of the temple so we crossed the overpass in search of an easier access. This proved to be a successful strategy and in about fifteen minutes we were able to get onto the platform. The metro got as back to Anyuanmen quite efficiently and we were quite relieved to be ensconced in the peace and quiet of our apartment.

Posted by zzlangerhans 16:26 Archived in China Tagged road_trip family xi'an family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog

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