July 27, 2012

Xi’an: An Ancient City of China

My summer is like the movie Inception. I keep falling deeper into travels and farther away from my reality at Lafayette. I will make my way back, but Xi’an is the farthest I will go. From Easton to Lancaster to Conifer to Dalian and finally to Xi’an, I have traveled around the world and back in time to a city that was the capital of China for a millennia.

Boats racing in the Dragon Boat Festival in Xi'an, China

Boats racing in the Dragon Boat Festival

Jason’s cousin is working on his master’s degree in civil engineering at the Xi’an University of Architecture and Technology, so Jason’s family decided to travel there to visit him for the Dragon Boat Festival – a time when both Jason’s mother and aunt had a vacation. It was the perfect time for us to go with Jason’s mother, aunt, and grandmother to Xi’an.

Lafayette College students Jason Sheng and Helen Hutchens pull their luggage on a runway with a plane in the background in Inner Mongolia.

Getting back onto our plane near Inner Mongolia.

Getting to Xi’an was not that easy for us. Unlike our flights from Denver to Dalian, there was a direct flight from Dalian to Xi’an, so we didn’t end up scrambling to transfer between terminals within 50 minutes like we did last time. However, some beautiful cumulonimbus thunderheads rerouted our plane to another airport near Inner Mongolia to wait for four hours before taking a puddle jump, or in this case a desert jump, to Xi’an. We got in late in the evening, made it to our hotel, and crashed.

When we got onto a tour bus the next morning, our tour guide was concerned that I might need an English-speaking guide instead. Jason reassured her that I would be fine. Jason, his mother, his cousin, and occasionally his aunt acted as translators for me. Even though Jason and his family had to translate, I think that it was the best way to not only experience the sights, but to take in the essence of the place. I missed hearing all the details of where we would be going later that day, but not listening to the tour guide all the time let me direct all my attention to observing the people, the city, and the sites.

Traffic at a busy intersection in Xi'an, China

An intersection in Xi'an.

The first thing that I observed about Xi’an is that the traffic is worse than in Dalian. It’s a bigger city, so this is to be expected, but it was compounded by the fact that the streets of Xi’an add an extra set of vehicles to a dance that amounts to something like a cross between Rush Hour and Frogger. Unlike Dalian, which has mountains that discourage bikers, Xi’an is flat and packed with them. I saw people, bikes, and cars all in the intersection and moving in different directions at the same time. It was scary enough to be in a bus, let alone to walk across the streets.

There is a juxtaposition of old and new here. Cars, buses, bicycles and people bustle through the streets.  Cars circle the Bell Tower that woke the city for centuries. The Bell Tower stands at the center of an island. Outside its protective rainbow ring of flowers is a sea of modernization. Malls and restaurants with flashy signs surround the square. The underground passages that allow people to reach the tower are lined with advertisements in English for designer dresses. Historic sites like the Bell Tower survive and thrive by being landmarks and tourist attractions that bring people to the city.

Probably the most famous attraction in Xi’an is the Terracotta Army. These soldiers were built to protect the first emperor of the Qin dynasty after his death. The tombs for these unique painted pottery soldiers took a large percentage of the population years to build. Reassembled from their former glory and with paint faded from the contact with air, the soldiers were still breathtaking. Covering an area bigger than a football field, they stood ready five stories below the surface of the earth to guard their master.

My personal opinion is that they needed to be buried that far down to escape the heat. The climate in Xi’an is not moderated by the sea like Dalian is. We drank a lot of water and ate a lot of ice cream, which came in many different flavors like red beans or green beans. However, ice cream is not a specialty of Xi’an. Biang biang noodles are a main local dish, and they have signs for them everywhere, though I think the signs are partially to educate tourists about the complex character that describes these wide noodles that are available only in this area.

To further cool off, we took a cable car up to the top of one of the mountains overlooking the plain. The breeze on top felt good, but the heat and humidity were a stark contrast to the cool dry air we encountered at the top of Pikes Peak just a few weeks before. From there, we hiked down the well-worn steps through the forest, amid vendors peddling their fake jade wares, and past historic landmarks. The mountain was a vacation home for emperors, so there are many stories that have survived the centuries.

Near the base of the mountain, we went to the natural hot springs where the emperor and later the famous general Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) would stay. I got my first taste of walking through a beautiful Chinese garden and seeing buildings employing the architecture of the Tang dynasty. Everything was carefully crafted with beauty and luxury. There was more peace and elegance in the natural architecture in this garden than I found in the gilded palaces of Europe.

Feeding the carp in the lake at the Tang Paradise Park.

The next day, we went to Tang Paradise (大唐芙蓉園), a park designed with the architecture of the Tang Dynasty. It was beautiful. We made our way down the curved paths through trees and past lakes until we reached the main lake. The lake was home to many carp and the setting of the Dragon Boat Festival. It is said that in ancient times, a poet drowned himself out of the despair for the future of the country. To make sure the fish don’t eat his body, men race across the lake in boats and drop in packets of sweet rice made for the occasion.

As we waited for the race to start, Jason’s cousin pointed across the city to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda (the name sounds more poetic and less silly in Chinese). He started to tell me the story of its founding by a Buddhist monk and asked me if I knew the story of the Monkey King. I had but a vague notion that such a thing existed much less that it was an elaborate tale over a thousand years old. As a journey rivaling the Odyssey was laid out before me, I wondered how Mulan is one of the only stories that I can place from China. How can I be so well versed in western literature and not know one of the four great Chinese novels?

Big Wild Goose Pagoda

My xun being personalized.

Not only am I completely ignorant of Chinese literature, I also don’t know the names of many of the instruments I see, from the guzheng (古筝) in Jason’s apartment to the xun (埙)I bought from one of the many street vendors. You play it by blowing over it like a bottle and holding your fingers over holes like an ocarina. It’s still normal compared to the sheng, an elaborate mouth organ we encountered back in Dalian.


Jason's cousin's lunch: meat pit.

On our last morning in Xi’an, we went shopping near the Drum Tower. There I saw a multitude of new foods and goods. Jason’s cousin even had to explain what some of the food was to Jason. However, I’ll write more about the food in China later in my next and final blog, so please bear with me and be patient.

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  1. I live in Xi’an. I have been to the USA 4 times.
    I understand your feelings about the traffic in Xi’an. I would like to mention 3 places that you might like to visit next time.
    1. Ride a bike on the city wall.
    2. Visit the 4 local culture parks around the Big Wild Goose Pagoda
    3. Go to the culture street along the city wall.

    says Kim
    August 3, 2012 at 5:50 am
  2. Thanks! I would have loved doing a bike tour and visiting more parks. I would also like to climb Mount Hua (华山) nearby.

    says Helen
    August 3, 2012 at 6:45 am
  3. Great trip. Wonderful pictures. I wish you good luck.

    says turbo mielec
    August 22, 2012 at 5:48 am

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