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Xi’an: New life in old city

Mike Peters
Updated: Mar 16,2015 10:37 AM     China Daily

The Muslim quarter of Xi’an, featuring food stalls and sit-down restaurants, is a highlight of any Xi’an visit.[Photo by Wang Jing/China Daily]

Xi’an is hailed as the easternmost hub from which the Silk Road’s land route webbed westward to reach Rome. Armies of tourists besiege the modern metropolis to view the Terracotta Warriors, but Mike Peters discovers other marching grounds worth exploring.

Few getaways from China’s capital beat Xi’an. Its laid-back lifestyle and distinct culture are very different from the big cities of the east coast. It’s reasonably close to Beijing, and you can see and do a lot in a short time.

Chang’an-as the city was known in its heyday-was the capital of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) and has long been acclaimed as the gateway to the old Silk Road. It was the biggest city in the world when ancient Chinese culture was at its peak, and many of Xi’an’s best experiences for visitors hark back to the caravan days.

The Terracotta Warriors Museum is one of the city’s major attractions.[Photo by Wang Jing/China Daily]

Two full days can provide a good taste if that’s all the time you have. The trick is to fly in early and fly out late-or take an overnight sleeper train each way. From Beijing, you can depart around 9 pm and arrive in Xi’an at 7 am with a night’s rest, so you can hit the ground running.

We made our hotel reservations ahead of time, which gave us a jump on getting to the area’s most popular tourist attraction: the famed Terracotta Warriors. A hotel shuttle bus met our train, swept us to our lodgings and expedited check-in for those who wanted to jump back on the bus for the one-hour trip to see the warriors’ excavation and museum.

Feats of clay

The “Why?” behind one of the most exciting archaeological finds of the 20th century remains elusive. Did the emperor who unified China, Qin Shuhuang, fear the spirits of those he had conquered in the afterlife? Or did he simply expect to continue his rule once he’d crossed over to the other side? Whatever his motivation, the epic scale of this life-size army of soldiers, horses, chariots and wagons is so impressive that it’s come to overshadow his other claim to fame: one of history’s worst tyrants.

[Photo/China Daily]

The facial features of each figure are unique and carefully detailed. The bright paint that once colored the clothing famously crumbled to dust when the warriors were excavated. Such challenges have sporadically delayed much of the digging still to be done as archaeologists seek new ways to preserve the old pigments.

Tour guides are available at the museum site. But our English-speaking group opted for a guidebook and the audio tour (40 yuan or $6.39).

The outside theater provides an interesting introduction to the making of the statues, but the film is long and skippable if you’re pressed for time.

We started with the smallest pit (No 3), where the cheesiest souvenir on the site-a digitized photo of yourself with your face cast in stone and your garb gone warrior-is surprisingly hard to resist. We ended up at Pit No 1 for an impressive finish: 6,000-plus warriors and horses lined up and ready for battle.

The site is ironically a tribute both to intense long-term planning (ancient) and to sheer dumb luck (modern). The army was only discovered in 1974 because some farmers were digging a well and came up with an imposing clay general’s head. It’s said the farmers got a nice chunk of change-and relocation to new housing-and the family member most credited with the find sits in the gift shop and signs books for tourists on most days.

Eat on the street

The warren like streets between the drum tower and the city’s Great Mosque have been home to Xi’an’s ethnic Hui community for centuries. And the nuts and dried fruits many vendors sell are not much different from those snatched up by their ancestors who loaded camel trains bound for Persia and beyond-except for the modern cellophane.

The curbside food here-generally Muslim so expect lots of noodles and lamb, no pork-is a highlight of any Xi’an visit. Vendors with tasty morsels are elbow-to-elbow for several blocks and side alleys, and tempting aromas engulfed us on arrival.

[Photo/China Daily]

To make sure we didn’t fill up too quickly, we searched first for the famous local yangrou paomo: Sidewalk chefs with bubbling cauldrons brew a soup broth and then feed in crumbled bread, mutton and noodles. Mysteriously, this requires a stovetop inferno, and the cooks make a good show of being engulfed in flames, steam and smoke as they prepare the savory soup.

After lunch we strolled through snack heaven, nibbling on dried but surprisingly succulent persimmons, slurping cold noodles in sesame sauce, and following the BAM! BAM! BAM! to sesame candy being made by literally hammering sweet seed paste. Look for a variety of different breads: Our favorite came from four chatty Uygur bakers who were scooping hot disks of naan, the pizza-like flatbread, from two hot iron ovens.

[Photo/China Daily]

Rouchuan (kebabs) are ubiquitous, cheap and delicious, while other vendors churn out a huge variety of sweets that evoke a Turkish bazaar.

Visitors might get their fill of the Terracotta Warriors after one good visit, but the myriad munchies and colorful vendors of the food street keep me coming back to Xi’an again and again.

Follow Xiyang Shi to the west and you will end up at the Great Mosque, with its intriguing Islamic-Chinese architecture. Originally built in the 8th century, most of the remaining buildings are Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) era, scattered in a delightful park setting.

Tang is the word

In Beijing and Shanghai, the major ancient attractions are from the Ming and Qing dynasties, but those rulers are viewed as Johnnies-come-lately in Xi’an.

[Photo/China Daily]

While the famously intact city walls are in fact Ming replacements for the much-larger Tang originals, it’s the legacy of the Tang Dynasty that rules here today. It sometimes gets kitschy-such as the dinner theater show at Tang Dynasty restaurant, a tour-group magnet. (The foreigners with us found the glitzy spectacle with Vegas-esque costumes to be good fun, but the Chinese in our group mostly put their heads on the dining table, muttering “Tang Disneyland”.)

There’s a similarly hyped 8 pm fountain and music show at “the biggest musical fountain in Asia” at the Big Goose Pagoda that’s worth seeing once.

Big Goose Pagoda is a must-see by day if you don’t visit for the razzmatazz light show at night. The city’s most famous landmark, it’s a fine example of the squarish pagoda design of the Tang era. This one was finished in 652 to house the Buddhist sutras brought back from India by the monk Xuan Zang, whose travels inspired the famous Chinese literary work Journey to the West.

The other tomb

The actual mausoleum of Qin Shihuang, the emperor whose artisans created the Terracotta Warriors, has yet to be excavated. So there’s nothing to see but a big mound, with a commanding view of the surrounding countryside.

We skipped that and headed north to the tomb of Emperor Jindi, a Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) ruler influenced by Taoism.

It’s a bit tricky to get there, and requires two buses and a short walk if using public transportation. So a hired car is easier and we thought well worth it.

The tomb features 21 narrow pits, and unlike the excavations at the Terracotta Warrior pits, you can learn a lot about daily life at the time from them.

Many of the pits are covered with glass flooring, so you can walk right over them and see the 3/4-scale figurines of eunuchs, servants, farm animals and more. The original figures had wooden arms and legs as well as colorful silk robes, all of course long gone with the ravages of time.

Planning your stay

Xi’an has a wide range of accommodations, from new five-stars to mid-range to gloriously funky hostels-all ready to make it easy to get to the local sights. Hostels here are some of the best anywhere-the environment is very competitive, so they have to be.

On my first visit to Xi’an, I enjoyed breakfast in a charming hostel courtyard near the south gate and, making an afternoon stop in the bar, sampled my first cup of medicinal wine.

That’s the clear Chinese liquor generally known as baijiu, in this case dipped from a huge apothecary jar that also included a fearsome (if desiccated) snake, tiger bone, sea horse and the penis of I can’t remember what. None of these exciting ingredients contributed to the taste as far as I could tell. But the bartender assured me the brew was designed for long life, and-at 50-something-I’m all for it.

At the other end of the accommodation scale, we went the upscale route on another visit.

The Kempinski hotel is sublime for meetings and conventions, with session rooms and banquet facilities on a quiet lakeside site that’s a half-hour or so from the distractions of the old city.

Chef Waylon Fu at the Dragon Palace restaurant makes the menu distinctly local, starting with a spicy Chang’an-style deep-fried chicken and an elegantly simple version of the local noodles.