X'IAN (CHINA TRIP PART 2)
Updated: Apr 2, 2019
X'ian is the smell of boiling sweet potatoes, tossed noodles, and frankincense. It is the first memory that comes to mind when the city's name is spoken (pronounced She Anne). Though it is a city built for kings, past and present, it's not the 9 miles of impressive 2000 year old city walls, nor the large street markets (that were once part of the silk road) where merchants still peddle their goods today, or the Terra-cotta Warriors, not even the impressive mountains that come to mind first... it's the food. The glorious, tongue stimulating, mixes of spices, fruits, and veggies, that make this place a must visit.
Don't get me wrong, as you will hopefully see- all the other things are so enchanting it's amazing that I can pick one thing to stand out among the rest. So why don't I back up and start from the beginning and you can decide for yourself what you would love about this Asian wonderland.
The bullet train deposits commuters at the X'ian station late in the evening, as the ride is just a bit over 7 hours, even at 300 mph. It's hard to imagine something so far away from the prodigious Forbidden City and peaceful Summer Palace, being so immensely important to any of the numerous Emperors that would call this home over the years. It's not until the city emerges, a low valley flanked on all sides by towering impassable mountains, that the strategy behind this impressive location materializes.
If you were constantly worried about being invaded you'd build your home inside the protection of colossal natural roadblocks. For good measure, you might as well build a man made wall just for that ability to really sleep easy at night.
X'ian is just that, a city that can only be breached if those inside want you to join them.
Today the ancient city fortification is known for it's bike rentals, as the 9 miles is a breeze on two wheels and gives you an amazing view of all the new mixed amongst the old. It's also an incredible walk at night, lanterns lighting the stones in amber hues. But I'll get to that a little letter.
Let's get back to protection, and for that we need to look no farther than some warriors, stone warriors, 10,000 to be exact.
Though X'ian has been known for a lot over the years, yes the food being one of those things, it became that much more renowned when a poor farmer unearthed a behemoth treasure. Digging for a well in his garden he uncovered every jogger's worst fear... a human head. Lucky for this country man, the face was made of clay... even more fortuitous, the skull was not alone. Not only did it come attached to a life sized body, but this warrior frozen in time was surrounded by 10,000 of his favorite friends.
The farmer had unearthed the Terra-cotta Warriors, one of the best known archaeologic finds in China to this day.
Though the earthquakes that rock this region of the world frequently have knocked these protectors down over the years, hundreds have been put back together by skilled archeologists and stand proud and waiting just as they did when they were buried outside the Emperor's tomb thousands of years ago.
There are so many the space they are contained in looks more like an airplane hanger than a museum (and that is just one of three buildings). Though the farmer has passed away, his sons still visit the site frequently and even sign pictures or copies of the guide book in the visitor center on days they are feeling extra friendly.
Though the mountains provided great feng shui, and security for the Emperor to enter the afterlife in peace, these warriors (4 different types in all, ranging from infantry man to general) added that last big of armament for the life beyond death.
It's hard to wrap your head around the scale of the project even when you stand amongst them. Each with a different face, finger nails, and tendons, the massive undertaking it would have been to create them seems to be a norm for an area where details is revered. Doing things to titanic scales seems to fit in a landscape surrounded by lofty peaks.
Just like the skyscrapers standing as sentries amongst cabbage fields, and in pomegranate plantations, the mountains seem to pop up out of no where. Unlike the gradual buildup of the Rocky Mountains, the Huashan range erupts abruptly from the Earth - from zero to 4,000ft without warning.
It's no wonder they are known as the stairway to heaven, they look just like they were built for just that ... a path to reach the stars.
So reverential and peaceful Buddhist and Taoist monks quickly etched steep stone steps, with nothing but chain handholds, so they could build temples amongst the tops of clouds on the flat points of the highest apex. People can still walk the 25 miles straight up today (if you have the two days they say it takes), or if you are crunched for time and want to see as many of the five peaks as possible you can take the gondola.
The small glass cars weave up and over ranges, dropping at times 2,000 feet and still not reaching the valley floor far below, before they climb again against the face of giant sandstone mountains. Fall explodes all around and due to the low elevation of X'ian itself, trees creep to the very tip top points, painting the landscape in a rainbow of vegetation. It's almost too beautiful to believe it is real, sunlight streaking along thin ridge lines dotted with prayer flags and path markers. It is truly an experience at your own risk kind of place, inhabited only by the monks that keep up the temples still found amongst the cumulous.
Thousand foot drops in all directions are almost lost on those who have found this diamond in the rough, as the prayer flags and lovers locks - mixed amongst stairways that should really be called mountain ladders for their steepness- quickly over stimulate and take over the senses. For those truly brave you can plank the Chinese way by traversing small sections of the mountain on planks shackled to the sides of the south (or north) mountain. With the valley being deepest at these points I was told before making my way along what is most famously called "the world's deadliest hike" that this point was actually 7,000 ft above the floor below.
It was worth the price of the harness and the small wait =)
After experiencing heaven, and the 10,000 soldiers waiting to defend it, it's hard to believe that anything else about X'ian would be so powerful it would arouse the senses in a way that would steal the show. Yet as those who visit this wonderful city learn, X'ian always has one more thing up her sleeve.
Just like everything else in China, the fusion of old with new creates a magical stage for some truly foreign and awe-inspiring experiences to be had. Though the importance of the silk road is often lost on people in modern times, the energetic atmosphere of the Muslim Market will give any who visit a quick glimpse into what a crazy world it must have been back in the day.
From one end of this gigantic block to the other street vendors peddle their wares, from bicycles, to store fronts, even booths set up on the sidewalk. Sweet potatoes boil in pots fixed to two speeds, while noodles bowls sit waiting on heating dishes for people interested in a quick bite, fried octopus on sticks, cream puffs of all the colors of the rainbow, spiced teas, and steaming dumplings scent the air with all the allures to keep your tummy interested. Men pound what looks like taffy into submission while women cover a section of the already hammered goodness with nuts and shredded coconut. Young boys grind up pomegranate seeds in a machine that produces instant bottled juice right on the spot. Finger painters sit next to noodle makers who toss their stringy dough into waiting simmering water.
It is truly a place to get lost in your senses, to taste, try and enjoy. It's also the best place to buy knock offs if that's your thing.
As you walk around China you might notice everyone wearing North Face jackets, or adidas shoes, which seems crazy since they are some of the most expensive brands in America. For a country so poor, it's hard to imagine how they can afford such name brand stuff... that is until you find the Muslim Market. Though North Fake might not be your thing, let's be honest, if it lasts just as long and it does what it is meant to do, does it really have to be an original? If you are cool with spending 1/10th the price, this is a shoppers paradise.
For people like me, where shopping for tea is much more likely than "name brands" this will also be your mecca. But most importantly throw caution to the wind and taste the amazing flavors that are truly original to X'ian... you won't regret it. If you didn't already hike the glorious mountains don't worry, you can work off all your extra calories by taking a sunset stroll along the city wall, or bike ride if that's more your style. Watching the moon rise over ancient guardhouses as the day bleeds into night, belly full of yummy Asian noodles, is my suggestion for how to end your last night in this o=wonderful city.
But that's just me =)
To be continued... next up: Zhangjiajie (the land that built Avatar).