TRAVEL FRAGMENTS - XIAN, CHINA
A good portion of our first two years in China has been spent exploring the cool and creative scene of its larger cities (see here and here). Call it expat creature comfort and the need to find a routine to help settling into a radically different new country and culture. This was also motivated by my fascination of how Chinese people fluently blend old and new, local and foreign. However, as we started finding our marks, I felt a deeper need to explore both China's past and more remote locales. A few weeks on my own in Shanghai, while the rest of the family was breathing in the fresh Northern European air, provided the opportunity for quick weekend escapes. A short 36 hours in Xian proved a perfect immersion into China's imperial past, coupled with a glimpse of the Silk Road. You could say China has an old habit of merging various influences and recombining them as its own. No fancy addresses below but some impressions of from China's incredible history.
The terracotta warriors army.
Frankly, I expected to be disappointed and overwhelmed by the throngs of tourists. Maybe because I arrived with little expectations, I was blown away by these artefacts of time passed. It helped that my guide had grown up locally and roamed these grounds as a child before they were protected and barricaded.
Imagine thousands of life-size statues, each different from the other, carved and painted with meticulous detail in 210 BC by close to a million workers. Eight thousands warriors are believed to have been buried in the funeral pits to guard the tomb of the First Qin Emperor, and the story goes that every single worker was killed to preserve the secret of the location. A farmer digging up a water well in 1974 accidentally unearthed this silent army. Many statues are still buried as Chinese authorities wait for new techniques to emerge to protect the richly coloured paint that decorates the warriors (it currently disappears in minutes when exposed to air).
Traces of the Silk Road.
China is often portrayed as an autocratic and inward-looking power, yet my experience living in China is that of a very curious and globalist people. Perhaps unsurprisingly, regular contacts between China and the West started in around the same time the terracotta army was built. The opening of the Silk Road followed shortly thereafter. Silk became very popular in the West, and Chinese silk was amazingly used as a currency throughout the Roman Empire by beginning AD. I am still only halfway through the fascinating book by Peter Francopan, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, and am still amazed by the idea that the world was more globalised two millennia ago than it is today.
Xian was established in and around 200 BC by the Han dynasty, and by 140 BC Chinese missions were dispatched to Central Asia and eventually to Rome, The city blossomed under the Tang dynasty (7th to 10th century), and saw an influx of Western goods and trends, embraced by the local elites. A religious centre for ''imported'' faith such as Buddhism, Nestorism and Zoroastrianism etc since the Tang, Xian became a Muslim centre under the Ming dynasty in the 17th century. Today's Muslim Quarter and Xian's Great Mosque are visually striking examples of Chinese and Muslim cultural integration. The Great Mosque elegantly fuses Chinese structure with Muslim motifs, and is a compelling reminder of the beauty of cultural metissage.
A stroll through the Muslim Quarter at nighttime to sample local food is a must on the tourist track, but feels, as often in China, a little too much like a tourist attraction with little credence given to the cultural specificities of Chinese Muslims. I would recommend to visit the area during the day as well, when you can witness local traders going about their daily business.
Before you leave, go for a cycle on top of the Xian fortified city wall. You will get a chance the least comfortable bikes in China, as you complete the 14 km loop of the 12-metre wide fortification.