After finishing off some snacks I grabbed a cab and headed to the old city to have a look around. I got into another great conversation with a cabby – we talked a lot about Xi’an, foreigners and the other sights of China. I guess when I started to learn the language I was more focused on how it would make living here easier. And it did, but what I wasn’t counting on and what I ended up with was opportunity after opportunity to relate to real people. That I think is what having some mastery of the local language does for you – it eases the way but more importantly it enriches the experience. I remember this from our trip to Spain, but it really hadn’t snapped for me here until tonight.
I got out at the Drum Tower, one of the two prominent landmarks just inside the city walls. Built in 1380 during the reign of the Ming Emperor Hong Wu, it stands at the junction of the four major streets of the old city. It is the largest remaining tower of its type in China. It stands a little over 100 feet tall and its brick base adds another 21 feet. In the past it was used to covey messages to the residents of the city, today it stands there looking really nice at night, covered in bright yellow lights and bathed from below with spots. A few tourists wandered far above on the balconies that ring the outside.
Once past the distraction of the sight of it, it became obvious to me that the streets were jammed with people, and few idiots trying to inch their cars through the crowds. Behind the tower is the entrance to the Muslim Quarter and that was where most people were heading. I tried a couple of times to make my way down the center of the lane but the crush was just too great for me. After failing to move for a few minutes I took the easy way out and cut between some stalls, heading back to where I began. Xi’an is the traditional start (or end, depending on your perspective) of the Silk Road, and the people here reflect thousands of years of commerce, travel and trade. In addition to the majority Han, there were many different looking people buying and selling, something that grabs you right away when you have been in China as long as I have. Men with Chinese features wearing the while lace pillbox hat typical of Central Asian Muslims. Men and women with strong Caucasian features side by side with Chinese women wearing beautiful silk scarves hiding their hair. It was clear that this crowd was made up of people whose ancestors came here and stayed, a thousand years ago. It made me wonder what this place must have been like at the turn of millennium before last, with caravans of camels and donkeys coming up this ancient street bearing goods from as far away as the Mediterranean. Tonight it was all about food and trinkets, but the spirit was the same.
I made my way towards the other central landmark, the Bell Tower, stopping along the way for an Americano at Starbucks. The juxtaposition between then and now is always just at your fingertips in a place like this. The Bell Tower was originally built in 1348 during the Yuan dynasty but moved to its current spot in 1348, early in the Ming Dynasty like its cousin up the street. Its purpose was to mark the hours of the day by way of a huge iron bell that used to hang at its center. It stands now in the middle of an incredibly busy traffic circle which by virtue of a steady stream of double-decker tour buses makes it almost impossible to photograph. Many Chinese were trying though, positioning their friends in a way to get both them and the building, proving their presence at this spot. I stood around for a while, enjoying my coffee and the tourists even more. This tower too was flooded with light, making it quite sight even if I couldn’t get a decent picture of it.
It was getting late and I wanted to hit one more spot, the city walls. I’d seen them on the way in and I figured they were worthy of a stop given the architecture and how nicely lit they were. Like most of the other attractions here, they hailed from the early Ming Dynasty and were originally made of rammed earth. Later they were enclosed in gray brick, greatly increasing their effect as a defensive structure. They are in the vicinity of 9 miles long and there is a guard tower every 40 feet. They are 39 feet high, 36 feet wide at the top and 60 feet wide at the bottom making them extraordinarily stable, but also well designed for those defending from above, providing a clear shot at attackers. After stumbling around for a while and finally resorting to asking a woman selling fruit how I could get up there, I crossed one more deadly traffic circle and found the entrance, at the end of a small street lined with trees festively decorated with red, blue, green and yellow rope lights. I paid my 40 kuai and went through the entrance gate and finding myself in the midst of a brightly lit square defined on all side by the tall gray brick walls. 500 years ago this must have been a place where they marshaled the troops for some nasty thing going on outside of the city. Today it was used for a few people taking photographs and roaming around stunned by the scale. I climbed up a long, steep flight of stairs and came out on top. Stretching off into the perceivable distance were iron lamp posts holding bright red lanterns gently swinging in the night breeze. At each major gate, a large tower stood, tonight brightly lit. People careened on rental bicycles in the dark and young lovers sat hugging on the benches. Xi’an was brightly spread out below. I wandered around for bit, took a few photos and just allowed myself some peace and quiet, a commodity in short supply down below.