From the terracotta army to the towering skyscrapers of modern Xi'an, Shaanxi province can be proud of its heritage
“Too expensive! The shop in front offered a much lower price,” I exclaim in broken Mandarin as the vendor tells me the price he wants for a coffee mug with a beautiful oriental design. The middle-aged merchant looks puzzled.
His bewildered expression prompts me to check the Google Translate app on my iPhone to make sure that what I have said is actually what I meant. It seems to be correct but perhaps not.
Without any Mandarin, haggling in the bustling shopping district of Muslim Quarter in Xi’an (and the rest of the city) can be hard. A few vendors speak a little English but most non-Mandarin-speaking shoppers usually end up resorting to sign language. Pointing at a calculator helps, too.
Seeing a twenty-something dude with distinctive Chinese features struggling with his Mandarin amuses the merchant. He chuckles before finally agreeing to my offer when I put on a show of taking my business elsewhere.
Located at the north of West Street in the city, the venue is the hub of the capital’s Muslim community and the best place to shop for such souvenirs as intricate paper cuttings, exquisite coin purses, antique hand mirrors and a cheeky “ObaMao” T-shirt, among others.
“You have to haggle when you shop here. The vendors enjoy it when you do that and the price can often go down by as much as 80 per cent,” says my Chinese guide Cathy Liu, though she acknowledges that not all her clients enjoy persistent bargaining. If that’s the case, soak in the colourful sights, sounds and smells of the many shops and little restaurants with bold sign boards that line the dark pavement of the marketplace. Granted, the cacophony of the large crowd can be quite overwhelming at times. Oh, and do be careful of pickpockets.
After two hours in the Muslim Quarter, thieves are the least of my concerns as I wrestle with the weight of my bulky purchases while scouring the expanse for some hot street snacks.
An ancient wall around the city centre serves to juxtapose the old and new. In many ways, the City Wall of Xi’an – China’s most complete one that is still standing – defines, and is defined by, the people who dwell around it. Today, it stands tall as a symbol of the city’s enduring past.
“The wall can no longer protect the city’s occupants against attacks today, we know that. But it protects our spirit,” says Liu, as we walk pass the structure on our way to the hotel.
Historically known as Chang’an, the assimilation of past and present is evident in Xi’an. A 15-minute walk from the six centuries old Bell Tower of Xi’an is the contemporary Grand Noble Hotel where I’m staying.
Built during the early Ming Dynasty in 1384, the brick and timber tower houses several large bronze-cast bells from the Tang Dynasty. The structure is even more impressive at night when it’s lit up, becoming a bright beacon of ancient Chinese majesty amid Western capitalist ventures in the vicinity.
From this landmark, the city’s main avenues – North, East, South and West Streets – extend to four corners of the capital, all of them boasting numerous shopping malls and Chinese-Muslim restaurants.
Enjoying the signature halal food in Xi’an is an acquired taste. While the menu of rice and dishes (chicken, beer, mutton, green vegetables and tofu) doesn’t veer far from those found in Malaysian Chinese restaurants, I find the food to be either too salty, too spicy or too oily.
With Xi’an’s history stretching back over 3,100 years, no trip to the city would be complete without a visit to its museums. Shaanxi province used to be the capital of 13 great dynasties and one can expect an overview of its illustrious past at the Shaanxi History Museum and Xi’an Museum.
The exhibition halls at Shaanxi History Museum contain a myriad of interesting treasures, such as a magnificent Buddhist grotto and other ancient relics.
Xi’an Museum is located beside the famous Small Wild Goose Pagoda. Not much of a history buff, I spend most of my time roaming the scenic grounds between the museum and the pagoda.
The structure has survived more than 70 earthquakes over the years. The body cracked in one earthquake, but was later sealed when another tremor hit the city years later.
Another famous pagoda is the much older and grander Big Wild Goose Pagoda in the Great Ci’en Temple grounds. The structure was erected in 652 to enshrine Buddhist scriptures, portraits and relics brought back by the monk Xuanzang from his 15-year pilgrimage to India. The monk’s exploits are recorded in the well-known Chinese literature “Journey To The West”.
Visitors are greeted outside the walls of the complex by a park and huge plaza. The spot is a popular night haunt among locals as it showcases a musical water fountain show in the evening.
The capital boasts many notable landmarks, but one has to travel to the outskirts of Xi’an to visit the city’s other historical attractions. Located about 30km from the city centre is the Huaqing Hot Spring, a famous imperial bathing pool surrounded by various palaces, some of which date back 3,000 years.
Although the structures within the area were rebuilt in 1959, they adhere strictly to the Tang architectural style and appear genuine. I listen with rapt attention as Liu recounts the story of Emperor Xuanzong and his concubine Yang Fei. The palace complex was the favourite resort of the emperor who spent many winters there with his beloved concubine.
About 20 minutes’ drive away in Lintong county is one of the most significant archaeological finds in the world – the Museum of Qin Terracotta Warriors and Horses. The life-size terracotta figures are synonymous with the ancient city and it’s easy to see why.
The craftsmanship of the terracotta figures, arranged in battle formations, is simply astounding. Each of the warriors is distinctive – from the facial expression to the shape of the earlobes and costume design.
“It kind of makes you wonder how much time and effort those past artisans spent, don’t you think?” an English tourist asks his female companion as we all lean on the railing separating the excavation site from the walkway to snap some photographs.
Legacies from the past have made Xi’an the historical gem that it is today and the visitor’s thanks must go to local contemporary society’s sense of historical pride, which has made this ancient city shine.
A walk in the picturesque Tang Paradise on my final evening in the city validates that notion. What’s incredible about the cultural theme park is how everything that’s quintessentially Tang Dynasty – from the poetry and the songs to the majestic pavilions and market squares – has been seamlessly recreated in the heart of a bustling metropolitan.
And therein lies the true essence of Xi’an. Even as the city embraces modernisation, traces from the past are always present, a constant reminder of the great capital that it once was.
If you go
_ Thai AirAsia operates daily flights between Bangkok and Xi’an. Visit www.AirAsia.com.