Discovering China pt 4.

If I could pin a motto on Xi’an, it would be that bigger is better. As the most populated city in Northwestern China, the city alone boasts an insane population of almost 9 million people, and it shows. Stepping into Xi’an felt like you’ve stepped into one of the most important cities in the world. The buildings were tall, the roads wide, billboards stretching across the sides of buildings like you wouldn’t believe. As one of the oldest cities in China, it boasts numerous tourism attractions, including the Terra Cotta army, the fortifications of Xi’an, Mt. Hua, as well as many local cuisine styles that attract visitors around the world.

Construction sites were a regular sight

That level of growth and population doesn’t come without any consequences however. Despite the huge roads and lanes dedicated for bicycles and smaller motorized vehicles, there are over 2 million registered vehicles in the city as of 2014, which meant a growing problem including traffic jams and air pollution. Both are also very apparent issues – taking a taxi anywhere for even a 2 kilometer trip would take upwards of 15 minutes, and there is a smog that envelops the city during the morning hours. There are efforts to reduce congestion that I have witnessed as well however – the introduction of roundabouts is a good start for major intersections but there were only a few that I saw. As for air pollution, it’s hard to tell as there were no visible efforts being done. From my point of view, it seemed to be the worst out of all the places I’ve been to so far. A quick online query confirms my suspicion as it shares the same pollution level as Beijing, and is one of the worst offenders in China.

Clear skies – but buildings faraway are fuzzy due to smog

As a tourist, getting around the city is as easy as it was in Beijing – you have all the options available to you, subway, taxi, bus, or bicycle sharing services for navigation inside the city, as well as high-speed rail and air to leave. Xi’an is a city that can be explored both in the morning and at night, much like Beijing, with many events happening late at night that involve lights, such as the musical fountain show at the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, which has surprisingly survived many earthquakes despite being a 1,300-year old building.

Pagoda at night

The quite frankly ridiculous name comes from a legend involving Buddhist monks – apparently one day, they couldn’t find any meat to eat, and one of them said “Today we could not find any meat, I hope to the merciful Bodhisattva will give us some.” And at that moment, a flock of geese flew over them, and the largest one that was leading the pack had its wings mysteriously broken and fell to the ground in front of them. As this would have startled anyone, the monks were truly terrified and saw this as a sign from the Bodhisattva to change their ways and never touch meat again.

Today, it is quite a tourist hot spot, with many restaurants, parks, and public spaces where people were dancing, exercising, or just having fun. As previously mentioned, it also boasts the largest musical water fountain performance in Asia, although it’s unclear whether that’s saying much because how many musical water fountain performances are there really?..

Water fountain performance (accompanied by music)

The main destination of the day was the Fortifications of Xi’an, also known as the Xi’an City Wall. Built originally as a military defense system, it now surrounds the inner sanctum of Xi’an, and spans in a giant rectangle that’s approximately 14km (that’s 9 miles for you imperial folks). In the past, it was built under the orders of the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, and was maintained and refurbished during subsequent dynasties that also used the wall for its ability to be… a wall. Now that I think about it, I’m surprised Donald Trump didn’t visit this wall as well as the Great Wall, both have withstood the tests of time, and honestly this one seemed to have come out better in terms of wear and tear. It appeared very well maintained, and apparently areas that have crumbled in the past were replaced with newer gates or were expanded into a moat that hosts tours, should you choose to do so.

Outskirts of the wall

The entrance into the wall was actually kind of confusing, as it turned out, you had to go into the subway station that connected to it underground, and it took me a few minutes for me to figure that out. Also, the best gate to enter is apparently the southern one, as it is the most decorated one, and also because from there you could rent bicycles or take these carriages that dragged you from one section of the wall to another.

The first sight you’re greeted with from the South Entrance

As I didn’t have enough cash on me, I couldn’t pay the deposit to use a bicycle. Not to be deterred however, I decided to walk, taking in the sights along the way and stopping at the various museum and shops scattered about the area. You really get a feel for how wide the wall is once you’re at the top – now imagine there were archers stationed everywhere, you would never try to invade the place!

(hover or press images to see the caption)

Although the walk wasn’t too bad, it was clear that doing an entire lap around the wall would take too long on foot. As such, I decided to stop my journey at the North entrance and proceed to my next destination, the Muslim quarter and the Bell Tower inside the city wall.

Unfortunately, at this point I would have used the bicycle sharing service as the pathways for bicycles were way larger here than they were in Beijing, but you needed a citizen number to even be able to rent them so proceeding on foot was the only option I had. Thankfully, it wasn’t too far, only another kilometer away from the North Gate (had to backtrack though as the Bell Tower is in the city center and I went from the South Gate to the North one). The closer I got, the more people there were, until eventually I turned around the corner and was greeted with a pretty hectic sight.

A veritable sea of people

For most people, the only point of visiting here is for the food. A distinct dish can be translated to crumbled unleavened bread in Mutton Stew (Yangrou Paomo) can be found in practically every small restaurant tucked away in the street, along with vendors offering pomegranate juice, fried persimmon deserts, stuffed buns and the standard lamb/beef/variety of seafood kebabs. Various tourist traps were also present, selling overpriced trinkets and the like that I didn’t really bother spending too much time on. The smells however were truly intoxicating – you wanted to try basically everything you saw, but it was simply way too much food. I would definitely like to come back at some point in the future to try the stuff I couldn’t today, the myriad of distinct flavors with all of them being tasty was just way too good. Thankfully, the more I progressed into the neighborhood the less crowded it became, and I was able to sample the items I wanted.

Walking back to the hotel exhausted but satisfied, I’m preparing for a good night’s rest for tomorrow’s visit to the Terra Cotta museum. Hopefully it will be as fulfilling as the destinations today. As for the mountain, it would most likely have to be on another trip as I only have 1 more day and it requires a high speed train ride to be efficient if you wanted to visit the whole thing. If I wasn’t as tired from walking the Wall and to the Muslim quarter I probably would have done the Terra Cotta soldiers as well today and then arranged the mountain trip tomorrow. If I could have done today differently I probably would have arranged for Terra Cotta early in the morning after breakfast, and then the Muslim quarter after you get hungry, then the Fortifications where the bike ride will help you digest and relax if you take it slow, probably somewhere around in the late afternoon around 6:00 PM which gives you 2 hours to circle around the city wall before having to return the bikes. That then gives you enough time to go to the Pagoda Tower to watch the fountain show at 8:30 PM and see all the lights as well, although just reading that schedule does make me feel a bit tired.

Look forward to another update tomorrow.

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