An Earthenware Army, a Holy Mountain, and More Street Eats in Xi’an

Over two thousand years ago, after having braved the dangerous roads, windswept plains, and isolated deserts of Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Western Asia, the sight that would finally greet the eyes of the weary traders looking to earn their fortunes along the newly completed trade route was that of the city of Chang’an — now known as Xi’an — the Eastern terminus of now-famous Silk Road.  Given the continuous flow of goods, wealth, and people from distant lands, the city quickly outgrew its Chinese-only heritage and evolved into a mosaic of Islamic, African, Central Asian, and Eastern cultures, values, and religions, bringing with it all of the traders, soldiers, poets, travelers, improvisers, spirit seekers, outcasts, and people of notoriety that a city of that distinction would attract.

Unfortunately, time has caught up with Xi’an, and it is no longer the place of myth and intrigue that it once was.  As has been eluded to in past posts, the on-rushing tide of modernization has struck here, too, having re-shaped the face of the city into that of any other high-tech, developed metropolis in this part of the world.  The remnants of the past haven’t completely disappeared, however, as the influences from the far-flung cultures and various religions that were imported here over the centuries can still be seen today by wandering the various districts and quarters of the city:

The now-modern streets of Xi’an
The Big Goose Pagoda lit up at night
The sun casting shadows on the facades of the city’s buildings
A colorful musical performance, with a dancer acting as an accompaniment

By coincidence, Xi’an also happens to be the second city that I’ve visited in a row that still has its original medieval city walls standing, with the “old town” enclosed within.  In contrast to Pingyao, however, Xi’an city walls are massive – standing 12 meters high ( 4 stories) whose perimeter totals a whopping 14 kilometers.  The entirety of the walls are open to the public, but an attempt to walk around the city’s circumference would stretch to an over 4-hour excursion.  Thus, I opted to rent a bicycle in my attempt to save both a bit of time and energy while taking in the views of the city below:

A view along the interior of the walls
The South Gate of the walled city of Xi’an
The red lanterns and parapets that line the entire 14 kilometer circumference of the walls
Looking out towards the surrounding moat

The most famous attraction to this part of the Shanxi Province, however, is clearly that of the nearby Army of Terra Cotta Warriors.  Theories vary as to why this army of thousands of life-sized, clay soldiers was created to stand guard over the tomb of Qin Shi Huang (a powerful unifier in China’s history), but whatever their original purpose, they have proved to be one of the most unique archeological finds ever discovered.  Adding to the mystique of these soldiers is the fact that no two soldiers are exactly alike – their faces, poses, armor, and weaponry differ in appearance as much as that of any two real life soldiers:

The awe-inspiring scene upon first entering the excavation area
A few of the Terra Cotta Warriors on display for better examination
The face and appearance of every solider is unique

Nearby the city of Xi’an also lies another popular attraction, but of an entirely different style: the granite cliffs of one of Taoism’s five sacred peaks, that of Hua Shan.  Given that I’m still powerless over the impulse to climb any cliffs or mountains that I happen upon, I didn’t even bother to avoid this one, as I knew my ascent was inevitable.

Although there are a variety of peaks that one can visit if given several days to explore, the primary climbing spot is to what is known as the North Peak, at an elevation of 2,160 meters.  To reach it, there are three possible options.  First, there is a cable car that will whisk you straight to the top in just a few minutes – but that felt a little like cheating to me (not the mention the fact that it would ensure that you’d never be away from a crowded pack of day-trippers).  Secondly, there is a moderately strenuous trail that winds around to the West side of the mountain, taking roughly 6-7 hours of hiking to complete.  However, for those truly ambitious souls out there (myself included), there is a third option, appropriately dubbed, “The Soldiers Path.”  This grueling climb gets you to the same point at the hiking trail, however it only takes 2 hours instead of the 6-7 hours, meaning that the path is less “hiking” and more “climbing straight up the cliff face.”  I won’t say that I bit off more than I could chew by opting for the Soliders’ Path, but my legs were certainly sore the next day:

The marble cliffs looming in the distance
A view back down from about half-way up
Along the cliff to the right, you can just make out part of the trail
Sections of the Soldiers’ Trail were composed of steeps stairs, other parts were composed of very steep stairs, and then there were points like this, where the ascent was so vertical it required you to use a chain to pull yourself up
The view towards the Centre and East Peaks, as seen from the North Peak
Near the peak, all of the trees and railings are covered in colorful ribbons that grow frayed in the wind

Moving back into the city itself, the most apparent influence leftover from Xi’an’s time as the terminus of the Silk Road is the district of town known as the Muslim Quarter – also my favorite place to grab a bite to eat.  Part market place, part street food paradise, part religious center, and part tourist attraction, the Muslim Quarter has atmosphere in spades, with open-air butcher shops, constant throngs of visitors from all over the world, the occasion sounds of the call to prayer drifting out of the nearby Mosque, and a staggering variety of scents and aromas wafting through the streets (some good, some not so much).  The closest place that I can compare it to is the Djeema el Fna Square that I visited back in Marrakesh over a year ago now.  Have a look:

The chaotic and colorful streets of the Muslim Quarter after the sun has set.
Dried fruit and nuts available for sale
A scene from the Great Mosque, the anchor of the Muslim Quarter. Much like the city itself, it combines both Arabic and Asian elements to create a unique harmony
A selection of hand-wrapped Pu-er Teas
Given the volume of pedestrian, motorbike, taxi, pedi-cab, and rickshaw traffic in the area, it’s not surprising to find back-ups like this often choking off the streets. It adds another unique element to the atmosphere, however.

As mentioned above, the Muslim Quarter was also the best place in town to satisfy one’s appetite.  A stroll through the back alleys would reveal a smorgasbord of street food stalls, sizzling grills, open-air restaurants, massive woks emitting clouds of steam as they roared over equally massive fires, and everywhere people digging in to the city’s varied cuisine that developed over a few thousand years.  Here are a few of the examples of what I could find:

Yangrou Paomo – a dish that starts with the diner tearing apart a few hunks of steamed bread
The waiter then dumps in a heaping helping of noodles, lamb meat, and a few giant ladles of a soup-like broth, creating a thick stew and warming stew to fill even the hungriest belly
Majiang Liang Pi – Cold wheat noodles splashed with a nutty sesame paste, chili oil, vinegar, and salt
Lamb Kebabas (Yang Rou Chuan) are the most popular, but you can get just about any cut of meat here grilled up in kebab form. They also allow you to dunk the finished skewer in a bowl of chili flakes for an extra kick, and are often served with a hunk of grilled naan bread on the side
Babao Meigui Jing Gao – small wooden molds are filled with ground sticky rice and then steamed. Once the starchy powder has gelatinized, it is then pulled out, dusted with sugar, topped with any of a variety of flavorings, and skewered
The finished product. The name, by the way, translates to “Eight Treasure Rose Mirror Cake,” which apparently must have had a meaning at some point
Kao Anchun Dan – A skewer of 5 tiny quail eggs cooked in a special griddle and splashed with chili oil (of course)
It took me fifteen months of traveling, but I finally found the source of these delicious pork buns (not Xi’an so much, but China in general)…..Yay!
Jian Bing Guo Zi – A crepe made using a mung bean sprout batter that is then topped with an egg, scallions, and a quick spread of a mystery meat-like substance and rolled up on itself
At this point, I started losing track of the names. This was a dish of semi-transparent, gelatinous cubes made from ground lotus powder (I think), then fired up in huge woks and tossed with chili powder and scallions
Xun Rou Da Bing – a variety of fillings (in this case, a trio of pork, spinach, and pickled vegetables), stuffed into small pancakes and rolled up into crunchy spring rolls
This is another dish for which I never figured out the name. Essentially, they would take two flat discs of uncooked dough, stuff raw lamb meat between them (creating a sandwich), pinch the sides together to seal everything in, and then deep fry the entire lot for a few minutes.
And finally, for dessert, Shi Zi Bing – small, sweet dumplings made using a mixture of flour and persimmons (thus the orange color) and stuffed with anything from nuts to jellies and jams. This one happened to be stuffed with dates.

After Xi’an, I’m off to test my mettle against some of the spiciest foods in the world in the Sichuan Province capital of Chengdu.  Until then, Gan Bei from Xi’an!

About andrewamiet

I'm a 29 (now 31) year-old former desk jockey who is now making my way around the world, experiencing all of the sights, sounds, tastes, people, and culture that the world has to offer.

10 Responses to “An Earthenware Army, a Holy Mountain, and More Street Eats in Xi’an”

  1. I had no idea that Xi’an is beyond the terracotta warriors. The old city wall and the granite cliffs look like some place I need to go to when I’m around.

  2. Utterly spectacular views of the army and your climb. I had seen some terra cotta warriors in a travelling exhibit, but your photos are breathtaking.

  3. If there was a “love” button I would press it. These pictures are absolutely gorgeous, thank you for sharing. 🙂

  4. Fantastic post and beautiful photos. I love China, although all the times it was Beijing and in business. The food is just amazing and people are lovely. After reading your post I definitely want to visit Xi’an as well.

  5. Wow, what an inspiring blog and gorgeous photos! I visited China myself last year, and your post has brought back great memories thanks!

  6. I am off to China next including (because of you) Pingyao.
    Hope you are keeping well. Where are you now?

  7. Thanks (quite delayed) for this great post! I have been looking for resources aside from the guidebook as I’m planning to head to China later this year- this is a great help!

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