The great thing about being a Peace Corps China volunteer in 2017 is we get to take full advantage of the growth of high speed rails across the country. Last year, a visit to Xi’An would have taken 9 or 10 hours by train. Now, it’s a quick 3 hour trip – which makes for the perfect weekend getaway!
Xi’An (pronounced shee-an) is one of the ancient capitols of China- 1,500 years ago, when Beijing was a backwater nobodyville, Xi’An was already a bustling metropolis. In the Tang dynasty it was the largest city in the world by population, with over a million inhabitants inside the city walls and another 2 million outside.
The later Ming Dynasty walls remain today, creating a massive, rectangular 14km perimeter around the city center. Visitors can climb to the top and walk or bike around, getting great views of the interior and exterior city. The sky was rather polluted the day I went, but it was still a contemplative experience, nonetheless.
BIANG BIANG Noodles
One of the famous dishes in Xi’An is biang biang noodles, named after the thwacking noise the dough makes when it is repeatedly slapped onto the table and stretched over and over again. The noodles are as wide as a belt, but at the same time very thin, and remind me Lanzhou’s da-kuan noodles.
The character for Biang Biang is extremely complex (see below) with 57 strokes needed before it can be written out. It is essentially total artistic nonsense, and never made it into the great, definitive Kangxi Dictionary. There are over 47,000 recognized characters in the dictionary and biang biang is not one of them. Case closed!
Wild Goose Pagodas
A short bike ride south outside of the city walls will bring you to the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, built in the Tang Dynasty. Originally the structure was 10 stories in height, but subsequent earthquakes and rebuildings have left it at its current 7 stories.In 627 AD, the famous monk Xuangzang left China on a 17 year, road-trip journey to India, in an effort to gain a more enlightened understanding of Buddhism and bring back hundreds of original Sanskrit texts.
The Wild Goose Pagoda was constructed to house the texts and related translations, and also to honor his journey and spirit. Across town the Small Wild Goose Pagoda was built a short while later in 707 AD. As more and more pilgrims returned from India with Buddhist texts, the two pagodas (and Xi’An as a whole) became a symbol for the spread of Buddhism throughout China.
Qujiang Museum of Fine Arts
This is a museum that is not to be missed! The Qujiang Museum is a private (AKA pricey admissions) museum, but absolutely worth it. The highlight is several rooms displaying works of pure gold through several dynasties. The gold work is mostly filigree- fine gold threads that are then woven together to form baskets, headpieces/ crowns, and (my favorite) vases.
Precious gems- rubies, pearls, jades – are securely embedded into most of the pieces, and little animal figurines can be spotted throughout. There were gold phoenixes, dragons, bats, and elks that were easily identifiable, all thought to bring good luck to the very fortunate and wealthy owner of the piece.
I’ve seen some of the most exclusive works of gold housed in the Forbidden City in Beijing, and the National Palace Museum in Taipei- this collection easily rivals the best in the world.
No Chinese city is complete without a night market- and in the heart of Xi’an there is the wonderful, energetic Muslim Bazaar. This is one of the larger night markets I’ve experienced in mainland China, and it was a surprising amount of fun.
It’s absolutely packed on the weekends with all sorts of snacks to savor and trinkets to buy. There was a refreshing variety of goods for sale – I drank several cups of fresh squeezed pomegranate/ coconut/ sugar cane juice, and found myself running to the bathroom to relieve my bladder on several occasions. Xi’An is also famous for Yang Rou Pao Mo 羊肉泡馍 (Mutton and soaked bread) which I obviously had to try.
This is a three step meal:
- You’re first given an empty bowl with some very firm, round bread.
- This then needs to be shredded by hand into small pieces (mine were massive chunks but the locals could break the bread down to a much more refined size).
- The bowl is handed back to the waiter, who will take it to the chef, who then pours a boiling mutton broth over the bread. Some sliced lamb and other condiments are added, before the bowl is return to you. Slurp quickly!
It’s all quite enjoyable, and quickly warmed me up as I was sitting outside in the chilly November night. The soup congeals though as it cools- so it must be finished ASAP
There’s something for everyone at the market- carnivores will delight in skeletons of sheep and other animals, purposely hung to be gawked at by visitors. Vendors cut the flesh off the carcass and skewer them into kebabs for roasting.
Vegans can find something delicious too- including fresh jackfruit, sliced on request. Is it just me, or does this giant fruit eerily resemble the leg of a lamb, or maybe Spanish iberico ham displayed at a banquet??
This trip to Xi’An was one of my most interesting and rewarding weekends yet. Luxury malls and high rises dominate the noisy central roads, but one or two side-streets away, the atmosphere is completely serene.
Biking around on those one lane streets, I could hear the dry leaves scraping the ground in circular patterns below me, and songbirds confined to their cages chirping in the trees above. In some ways, Xi’An has not changed at all after 1,500 years