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16
May
2009
History flows freely in Xi'an E-mail
Reviews - Travel
Written by Harry Shattuck
From architecture to cuisine, Xi’an reflects the influence of 13 Chinese dynasties headquartered here — Qin (221-206 B.C.) to Tang (618-907) — and illustrates longer-lasting traditions.

As a guide on our organized excursion said, “Shanghai is where we show you the future of China. If you want to see the China of the past 600 years, you go to Beijing. But if you want to see the China of 5,000 years ago, go to Xi’an. “The canopy of the tree is Shanghai. The branches are Beijing. But the roots of the tree are Xi’an. ” The terra-cotta warriors have been the main impetus for tourism. But among scores of landmarks, you’ll find one of the world’s best-preserved 14th-century city walls (you can circle the city by foot atop the wall); pagodas constructed more than 1,000 years ago; an eighth-century great mosque, the center of Xi’an’s Muslim quarter; some of China’s grandest Buddhist temples; renowned Ming Dynasty bell and drum towers (now minus the bell and drum); even the remains of a 6,000-year-old Neolithic village.

The Forest of Stone Steles, which includes about 2,300 inscribed slabs, illustrates the calligraphic art of multiple dynasties. A large, modern history museum applies perspective.

Still, typical of 21st-century urban China — though not to the degree of Shanghai and Beijing — Xi’an is a paradox of the old and new.

I sat on a bench in front of the beautiful glass-ensconced Shangri-La Golden Flower hotel and watched a seemingly endless street parade of rustic three-wheeled carts whose drivers balanced TVs, stereos, sofas and groceries as they negotiated a busy boulevard, all the while puffing on cigarettes or chatting on cell phones.

One teen balanced a basketball as he pedaled his two-wheeler among taxi drivers known here as Chinese mice. “That’s because they are always zigging and zagging through the streets,” our guide said.

If the acrobatics and music in a Tang Dynasty dinner show I attended were authentically aged — and I wouldn’t dare question hand-plucked stringed instruments, a sorcerer’s dance and a song imitating the sounds of orioles — the 650-seat theater’s banquet feast of king prawns, beef tenderloin and honey-glazed walnut chicken was plenty up-to-date.

The pure silk costumes were exquisite, too, though I doubt the original Tangs complemented their meal with a glass of Great Wall Cabernet as we did.

Just when you begin to think Xi’an’s only real appeal is its link to the past, you learn this region is China’s version of California’s Silicon Valley, a hub of modern technology. This metropolitan area of 7.5 million people is at the forefront of the nation’s aerospace industry, medical research and rock-music craze. More than 40 universities are spread about the town and suburbs.

And the cuisine here is different from that in most of China. When they aren’t uncovering ancient warriors, farmers grow wheat, not rice. The main diet is noodles and dumplings. Guests at the Shangri-La Golden Flower can choose familiar steamed shrimp and pan-fried pork dumplings or experiment with steamed celery and carrot dumplings.

Construction is rampant, much of it inspired by the surge in tourism created by the warriors’ unearthing. In stark contrast to ultra-modern Shanghai, however, you’ll see no skyscrapers, with the tallest building at 10 stories. And almost all construction is done by hand.

Be prepared for air pollution. A problem throughout China, it’s notable in Xi’an where dust blows off the Gobi Desert to the west.


Our valuable Editor Harry Shattuck has been with us since Sunday, 04 April 2010.

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