As one of four ancient capital cities, Xi’an is noticeably touristy; more so than anywhere else we have been thus far in China. This did mean we were not the only British tourists around, however the sheer number if us in one group did draw interest (with one Chinese woman exclaiming “wow!” as she passed us by.)
First we headed for Xian’s city walls – the largest and best preserved ancient city walls in the world – which surround the city centre. We received a brief history lesson from our tour guide, Lei Lei (pronounced Lay Lay); I will take this opportunity to say how wonderfully informative and detailed he was throughout his time as our tour guide, ensuring we understood what we were seeing and the relevance of the activities we were taking part in. His enthusiasm and insight were second to none. After the brief lesson, we climbed the steps up to the wall and collected our bikes to cycle the 13.7 kilometres around the wall. It was much cooler and foggier today; useful for not building up too much of a sweat and passing out mid-cycle but the views were nowhere near as spectacular as in Yangshuo. Still, it was an enjoyable way to spend the afternoon and take in the environment.
That evening we headed out to the Bell Drum towers (which light up at night) and the bustling Muslim quarter located in the South East corner of Xian’s old town, about a 15 minute walk away from our hostel (Shuyuan; a really nice, clean hostel with little outside seating areas and plants). We spent a couple of hours wandering around the indoor merchandise market and outdoor food market (which is ridiculously packed at night) sampling street food delights including fried potatoes and “meat on a stick” for 10RMB (just over a quid) each. There were some slightly more unusual snacks including breaded deep-fried banana and something they told me was gluten, which I tried but I could only really detect the spices they had coated it in. They also served deep-fried sweet potato donuts with this strange fruit compote in the middle (they seem to like randomly adding thick jam in the middle of things, including savoury dishes) – I wasn’t a big fan of that one!
We returned to the hostel around 9:30pm and a group of us went down to the basement bar for a few hours of drinking beer, playing uno and watching the live entertainment.
We awoke at 8am the next morning to head to The Terracotta Warriors, China’s wonder of the ancient world (and also referred to as the Eight Wonder of the World, although I am unsure whom by and whether or not officially!) Despite the heavy rain it was a fascinating experience, again enhanced by Lei Lei’s knowledge of the history. It is one of the main highlights in most China tours and definitely worth seeing as it is incredibly interesting and, in ways, quite moving.
We had free time that afternoon and evening so I decided to go off by myself to wander the streets, explore the local shops and have some dinner. Suddenly, as a solo British tourist, I felt like I really stood out and I found myself feeling fed up with being gawped and pointed at (and ended up leaving a shop after the assistants kept following me around and whispering together); having not been in many minority groups in my life (especially not culturally or racially) I have not been exposed to such an intense mixture of feeling of being on display, isolated and judged (whether or not intended), which others have potentially felt their whole lives. I also became really frustrated at myself for not knowing the language well enough when ordering my food, berating my ignorance and resorting to exaggerated gestures and facial expressions to explain myself. The low point (or highlight, depending on how you view things!) came when I got lost and couldn’t finds toilet and, to describe what I was looking for to a Chinese man, I acted out the squat in front of him. Ah, I have always had such class.
The next morning we had to wake at 6am to start our 7 hour journey to Shaolin, but I wasn’t as gutted to leave Xi’an as I have been the previous places.
[See next post: Shaolin]
[See previous post: Chengdu]