March On! March On! On!
We had been in far western China for one week travelling in what I would argue was out of our comfort zone. Although the journey had been a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience, the beds were hard and the roads even harder. While we boldly sampled everything, the food was not always to everyone's palate. The days were full and exhausting. The gin smuggled from Hong Kong (and the local brews) had been much needed nightly elixirs and, honestly, I think we were all looking forward to our last stop - Xi'an.
Xi'an (split by an apostrophe in pinyin to encourage the speaker to articulate the two characters 西 [xi - west] and 安 [an - peace], otherwise it runs together as 'xian' which, depending on how you say it could mean a whole host of other things including 'first', 'salty', 'conspicuous' or 'county') holds a special place in Chinese history. For two thousand years it was the imperial capital of China, the start of the Silk Road and home to eleven dynasties of emperor. In Europe as the Western Roman Empire fell, the Visigoths asserted their dominance and the west entered the Dark Ages, the Tang Dynasty Buddhist monk Xuan Zang set off from Xi'an on his remarkable fifteen-year sojourn to India, bringing back countless Buddhist texts and whose flaming mountains described in "Journey to the West" we saw in Turpan. After falling out of favour with the Ming emperors, in the chronicles of early 20th century Chinese history Xi'an once again opened its arms to embrace leading figures of the time including the Empress Dowager Cixi and Generalissimo Jiang Jieshi better known as Chiang Kai-shek. The former fled to the city and set up her court in exile for two years after her ill-advised support of the Boxer Rebellion, while the latter was arrested in 1936 during the civil war in what would become known as the Xi'an incident. So if you like history, as I do, there is certainly a lot to think about when in the left corner of China's travel triangle (Beijing-Shanghai-Xi'an).
In my infinite wisdom I had made reservations at the Kempinski Hotel both because I figured we'd be ready for some Egyptian cotton sheets and because of the Chengdu connection, which I hoped would work in our favour. Although I can't fault the hotel in the above two regards I had failed to notice that it was based out in the boonies giving us a handy 40 minute minibus ride into the centre of Xi'an and the famed walled city.
Like walking on the Great Wall outside of Beijing, rambling atop the 14km (restored) ramparts of a structure originally constructed in 1370 is an emotive experience; modern China juxtaposed against its ancient ancestor. It is possible to complete a circuit in just over 90 minutes on bikes, but instead we enjoyed a journey between the Yongning Gate in the south and Anding Gate in the west in rickshaws pulled by jovial and helpful drivers. We descended the wall and entered the city eventually finding ourselves in the Muslim quarter. Although we'd been exposed to China's Muslim culture in Xinjiang the hustle and bustle of the winding alleys of the quarter were as fascinating as if it were our first time. Food vendors and souvenir sellers hawked their fare in loud voices while our senses were assaulted by the smells and sounds of the lunchtime rush. It wasn't long before our stomachs joined the caterwauling and we sat down at an open front restaurant to enjoy a Xi'an speciality - paomo, a meaty soup poured over tiny bread cubes. Despite the vast size of each bowl (another bonus of Chinese cuisine) and the questionable hygiene of the chosen establishment it was mouth-wateringly delicious, and I was sorry that it was the first and only time I enjoyed the dish.
The primary reason for a trip to Xi'an is the visit the tomb, and terracotta soldiers that guard it, of the Qin emperor Qin Shi Huang (246 - 221 BC), the first emperor of a unified China. It is staggering. Not only for the scale of the entire site but the details of each warrior where no two faces are the same. The restoration work carried out is a marvel in itself as each figure has been painstakingly put back together since they were discovered in fragments. It would take generations to rebuild every warrior but the few hundred or so of the ones on display give you a good enough idea of what it would have been like. The tomb was discovered in 1974 by some peasants who were digging a well and, as an added bonus, when we visited the gift shop one of the chaps was there signing coffee table books about the exhibit. You are not allowed to take his photograph, not does he seem to respond to questions but it was fun to add a signed copy to my guide-book collection. It's a fascinating but tiring few hours and an important stop on any China trip. Equally fascinating and tiring is the Shaanxi History Museum which we ventured into after a filling dumpling lunch. It's a very well put together museum and, I have to say, I think Beijing could learn a thing or two from some of its provincial cousins. (If Shenyang, Xi'an and even Dunhuang can do it there's no reason why Beijing can't.) We were led around the museum by a rather formidable young woman who had strong views about China's impact on global history. Although I'm not disagreeing with everything she said, I do rather feel that her rabid nationalism might work against her when she travels to Paris later this year to tour the museums. To her credit she's passionate about what she does and at least she's heading overseas to learn from others as well.
China "Experience" Rating: 8/10.
As one of China's top three travel destinations Xi'an is using its tourist dollar income extremely effectively and is a pleasant and worthwhile trip.
After a 5,000 mile round trip from Hong Kong to the Kazakh border I believe China to be a captivating country, and I do hope that foreigners will travel to the Middle Kingdom and see past the Communist badge that, make no mistake, is worn contentedly by many millions, but which rarely impinges on a visitor's journey. The Chinese are a proud, friendly and inquisitive people. While we all have stories about being hoodwinked and bamboozled by an unscrupulous few it's somewhere that is as enjoyable to visit and, I'll wager, more diverse in its topography and customs as Italy, France or the USA. It has gleaming metropolises and dirty peasant villages. It's somewhere where history is everywhere and nowhere. It was a place I called home for eight years. It really is a people's republic.