Xian, China: Exploring the OLD Capital

Chinese pottery of a traveling band of people

Trip Taken: 2008

During my time working in China, we had several three day weekends that were part of our vacation days. One of these weekends happened to fall during the first weekend of June. My co-worker Adam and I decided to head to Xi’an to partake in some Chinese history. The time and place have no relevance to each other. It is just when we left. Our flight left Beijing on a China Eastern flight to Xi’an. Just a quick side note about airplane food. I usually get the Western meals when flying in China, but I opted for the Chinese meal on this flight. The last Western airplane meal just wasn’t very tasty. The Chinese breakfast meal reaffirmed my love for rice porridge. It also taught me that Chinese pickled squash goes great with rice porridge. Alone, it’s fairly salty. But with the clean rice, it counter-balances the strong flavor of the pickled squash. Rice porridge and pickled squash is now a staple of mine when I’m looking for a cheap Chinese meal. Pickled squash is an acquired taste, but it’s not as love/hate as say something like stinky tofu is.

We arrived in Xi’an on wet, rainy day. Finding our hostel, Backpax Xi’an, was fairly difficult as it was on one of the top floors of a commercial building. Backpax is a modern spa that has been renovated into a youth hostel. You can definitely see it in the rooms and the large baths in the shower area. We arrived fairly early, but not early enough to catch a tour for the Terracotta Warriors. It was decided that we would see the city.

The Shaanxi History Museum

People waiting to get into the museum

One of the main tourist attractions in the city was the Shaanxi History Museum. It was free admission but it’s on a first come, first serve basis. I was the navigator, as I am many times when traveling, and I got us a bit lost. We took the wrong bus and found ourselves near the university instead of the museum. It’s a good thing that the Chinese people are still helpful, if not a bit pushy. We eventually found the museum and decided to eat lunch before heading in. We were starved and the airplane food can only do so much. Nothing really spectacular to write home about. It was a decidedly ordinary meal at what looked like a clean restaurant.

We waited in line for about twenty minutes before we were let in. It was still early enough in the day that the line wasn’t crazy, at least that’s what the lady we sold me my popsicle said. I know I said that we arrived on a wet, rainy day, but the rain stopped to become a hot, humid haze over the city. The actual museum was pretty neat lots of pottery, jewelry, some terracotta soldiers from the site outside of the city. One really interesting piece of metalwork intrigued me. Adam told me this story of when generals of the Qin dynasty go to war, they were not allowed to attack until they got both pieces of a gold inlaid panther. One was held by the general and the other held by the imperial court. It sounded like an interesting piece and I actually picked up a replica at the gift shop for a little under a hundred bucks for my brother.

The Muslim Quarter

Women cooking fried snacks for tourists

We decided to eat dinner in the Muslim quarter as it was known as a great place to try specialty snacks. Traveling by taxi, we got from the southern part of the city, through the south gate of the city walls, around the bell tower and to the entrance of the Muslim quarter. You can definitely tell you were in a different part of the city just from the way people dressed. Women kept their hair and extremities covered up and men wore simple linen clothes. It might be for the tourists but it definitely gave you that this is a different side of China.

We ate some pretty good Islamic Chinese food and visited the Great Mosque in the quarter. It was pretty hard to find and it was sort of strange to see a mosque with very Chinese architectural characteristics. I guess it’s my stereotype to always associate them with the Middle-Eastern, Arabic architecture. Of course, like any good tourist trap. There are dozens of stalls selling you souvenirs, although the ones in the quarter were less aggressive. It was a long day and we spent the latter part of the night at a shady but hostel-recommended massage place. There was no denying the talent of the masseurs, but the atmosphere was more run-down than I would have liked.

Parting Words

Xi’an is one of the most important old capitals in Chinese history. It’s also either a fairly well preserved or reconstructed city in the old style. The city within the city walls can be a day trip in itself. What we didn’t even cover on this day was a bike ride on the city walls. When we got back to the hostel, it was one thing a lot of people ended up raving about. C’est la vie. It was a fun day for me. The goose pagodas that we visited were neat but it was just a cool hangout place. Adam did pick up his Chinese ocarina there. Wonder if he still plays it.

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About the Author

John is always trying to find his way back to the road. He has an affinity for Germany due to his three years studying German at Cal, and a year working as an intern in the Stuttgart area. He also likes chocolate cake and good cheese.