Within my travels, I have noticed that I have a tendency to hold the smaller cities with higher esteem than the bustling metropolis. The best way to describe the cities I’m talking about it to ask a friend to name all the cities they can in a specific country. For Example: Italy. They might shell out Rome, Florence, and Venice. Maybe even Milan. But what about Verona? Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the major cities too. I am in Shanghai and I think it is amazing! But there is something about the laid back nature of the smaller cities that syncs more with me. Whether it is Verona in Italy, Hiroshima in Japan, Ahmedabad in India, Freiburg in Germany, or Louisville in the US, there’s just a sort of atmosphere that sometimes gets lost in big cities. Another city that is like this is Xi’an. Pronounced “She-Anne.”
There’s a lot more to Xi’an than it’s warriors, though they were really awesome! The area I stayed in was inside of the ancient city walls that date back to the fourteenth century. (They have been restored, but they’re equally impressive!) The city walls make a perfect rectangle and give you a feeling of security and domination at the same time. They can be accessed by gates in the midpoint of each wall segment. I actually rented a bicycle and rode around the top of the walls, stopping at each corner and gate house. As I was leaving I got to watch the ancient guard march to their places. They seemed not to be as uptight as the one’s at Buckingham Palace… but I’m not dumb enough to test that theory and risk a stay in a Chinese jail. It is a unique feeling to stand at the west gate and look out onto the vast sky rises that are popping up in clusters of twelve each. All you see is a sky of concrete mountains and cranes. But as far back as 650 years ago, you’d be watching a caravan of merchants head to Kashgar at the start of the Silk Road.
The silk road has brought a large Muslim population to Xi’an over the years. I loved walking through the narrow crowded streets of the Muslim Quarter, shaded from the sun by transparent gold, red, and green draped fabrics. Women in Hijab sell Chinese silk and knockoff purses, and men sell anything they can pass as “antique”. I tried to expand my old camera collection, but this man wouldn’t come off his price of $100 USD. It was probably a $15 buy. I lowballed him unsuccessfully, but I wasn’t that committed to the purchase. I love haggling- to an extent. This is the place to go if you want good street food and miniature sized terra-cotta warrior statues. You could build an entire army if you want. I bought some warrior post cards. By the way, I’m aware that I’m a souvenir dud. Ask my friends. However, I love a good postcard!
The Terra-cotta warriors aren’t smack-dab in the middle of Xi’an, but an hour outside the city in a remote valley. Discovered in the late 70’s, there are several thousand warriors, and each one is completely unique. The archeological process continues within the exhibition halls even today, and you can watch them sweep and hammer their way through the three pits of warriors. In pit one, the warriors are separated by walls of rammed earth that once supported the tomb in which they were buried. You can still see the grooves and burn marks where wood support beams were laid over them to create a roof. The original wood is now used to make the gymnasium-like roof of the Pit 1 exhibition hall. You can’t get within arms reach of any of them (unless your Bill Clinton), but you can view them from the catwalk surrounding the pits. I was particularly fed up with the insane amount of tourists around pit 1 so I moved on to Pit 2 and 3. Correction: the insane amount of tourists from the moment I stepped off the bus.
Back in Xi’an there are the Wild Goose Pagoda and the Little Wild Goose Pagoda. They are on opposite sides of the southern part of the city, but they are within walking distance… if you don’t have a problem walking a mile or two like me. That’s how you discover the best places. The Grand Wild Goose Pagoda was a square pagoda that you could climb for an extra 30 yuan. It resembles a very narrow early pyramid. If it didn’t have windows, that’s what I thought it would have been. The little Wild Goose Pagoda was interesting because it’s top shook off in an earthquake. It has a unique, almost cone-shape to it. It was a little less renowned than the other, but that also means a cheaper entry fee! I liked it better because it seemed more intimate and less crowded. I sat for a while in the shade next to the rose garden and read a book without hearing “Hallo, my frand! You like massage? I give special price!”
Besides the sites, I just found Xi’an to be a comfortable city that should have been my first stop. It would have gave me a chance to “ease into the Chinese way of life.” Instead, my first day in China I found myself in the eeriest place I’ve been yet: Tianamen Square (rookie mistake). But maybe I wouldn’t have appreciated Xi’an as much had it been my first place to see. I like the wide tree-lined boulevards, the bell tower in the city center, and the clean spacious metro. They even have a really awesome Starbucks. Oxymoron? It was way more laid back than Beijing & Shanghai. Technically Hong Kong isn’t in China… so tell your friend it doesn’t count when they name Chinese cities.