Last month I bade a temporary farewell to my adopted home of Spain and travelled across two continents to spend some time working in this place – Xi’an, located in Shaanxi province, slightly north west of the centre if you look at a map of China.
Xi’an (pronounced she-ann) is one of the more historic cities in modern China and was, in the dim and distant past, actually the nation’s imperial capital for a while (the duration of several dynasties, to be precise). These days it’s famous for marking the end of the Silk Road – the old trading route between Asia, the Middle East and Europe – and, of course, for being the home of the Terracotta Warriors.
I could copy and paste loads of facts and figures from Wikipedia, but instead I’ll just share what I’ve seen and learnt about the city so far in my own words.
Modern Xi’an is a fairly sizeable city with districts and developments spreading outwards all the time, but in the old days it was surrounded by a fortified wall which remains standing to this day. It’s the most intact old city wall in China, apparently, and visitors can walk or cycle along the top of it (for a Y54 fee).
In the centre of the old city is the huge Bell Tower, and next to it the Drum Tower, used in days gone by to tell the time and to regulate the lives of Xi’an’s citizens (a bell in the morning, a drum in the evening). These days the local population prefer to tell the time by using their mobile phones, but the bell is still there and at certain times the drum can be heard, too.
Of course, the main attraction for tourists visiting Xi’an is the world famous Terracotta Warriors, discovered by peasants digging a hole in 1974 but dating from the 3rd century BC when they were carved and erected to guard the first emperor Qin Shi Huang in death. Around 2000 soldiers have been excavated so far, but’s it’s estimated there are up to 6000 more still buried. And the most remarkable thing about them? Each one has a different face.
Back in the city itself and the other big tourist attraction, the gorgeously-named Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, a 7-story structure built in 652 to house Buddhist scriptures brought to Xi’an from India. (Yes, there is also a Small Wild Goose Pagoda but it’s not as impressive).
Each province in China has it’s own culinary speciality; in Xi’an expect plenty of hot spice! There is street food to be found everywhere, Xi’an is famous for its roadside street vendors.
Head deep into the centre of the old city, behind the Drum Tower, and you’ll find the Muslim Quarter. Due mainly to the Silk Road, Xi’an has the largest Muslim community in China, complete with a Great Mosque and a maze of streets selling Muslim snacks and trinkets. The most well-known of these is Beiyuanmen Snack Street, more reminiscent of Morocco or Egypt than China.
It’s not just about the food though…every Thursday and Sunday morning a small part of the Muslim Quarter plays host to a bird market, beloved of locals but off the tourist trail. People in Xi’an are very fond of birds; walk along many streets in the city and you’ll hear twittering coming from the occupants of home-made birdcages purchased at the market. They’re not all kept as pets though, apparently some people buy birds specifically to set them free, as a gesture to Buddha.
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