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Travel Journal: 西安 (Xi'an) E-mail
Reviews - Travel
Written by Patrick
Coming in from the airport after a flight from Hangzhou, I couldn't help but notice how much emptier and arid the countryside appeared. The moisture sucked out of it, the scenery consisted mainly of dust, ramshackle mudbrick homes and distant power plants smothered in haze of their own creation.

Also quite noticeable was the change in colour: pastels and sun-baked earth tones dominated the scene. The bright landscape, however, did little to hide the poverty. Travelling inland from the east coast cities is a good reminder as to why China is still considered a poor country. The airport highway cut through miles of destitute housing, communist-era brown brick apartment complexes and the crumbling world of state-owned enterprise. The disregard for traffic rules that places like Hangzhou try so hard to fight is left to its own devices here: multi-wheeled chaos with nary a lane in sight.

The centre of the city was quite a surprise: rather than opt for the popular Wall Street on the cheap model, Xi'an instead goes for the Imperial Capital look. Huge boulevards intersect neatly at monument-laden traffic circles, and they are lined with block-wide buildings often topped off with ornate Chinese-style roofs (yes, even the modern ones). 
The impressive city wall has equally impressive gates, and the heavy flow of traffic seems to indicate a city at the heart of something. In some ways, it made me think of a dirty Washington DC. Maybe this is what imperial Rome would feel like in 2004 ( if it was in China and designed by communists, that is).

But like most things in China, there is quite a different story just beneath the surface. Upon closer inspection, Xi'an is a bit more tattered and crumbling than its grand scale suggests. The forest of skyscrapers surrounding the Old City has its fair share of concrete ghosts, abandoned projects and ill-conceived white elephants. Some of the tastefully designed hotel and restaurant complexes are, unfortunately, glaringly empty. The back streets are not very glamorous, and the numerous beggars are particularly aggressive.

Despite all this, however, Xi'an has something going for it. Unlike its eastern cousins, the city doesn't seem so afraid of its past. It might not be wealthy or paved with gold, but at least it tries to do something different. I was in minor shock to see new development taking on an unmistakably Chinese architectural shape: haven't we all been taught that learning from tradition is backward?

The Muslim Quarter alone is well worth a visit to Xi'an. This neighbourhood right in the heart of the city is, rather surprisingly, untouched by the usual road widening, culture-killing modernization frenzy. Its streets are narrow and maze-like, bustling with bearded men, vendors, bikes, carts, and restaurants. One particular area comes alive at meal time, its sidewalks crammed with an endless variety of meat meals, cakes and Muslim sweets. In fact, so much smoke is produced from the cooking at this time that it at first we thought the neighbourhood was burning down.

To escape the chaos, however, nothing more is needed than a visit to the mosque grounds. Instantly cut off from the outside world, you are free to examine the interesting architecture in peace and solitude.

But this was one of the fews places of tranquility to be found in town. Xi'an is a human crush. The sidewalks were an exercise in crowd control gone awry, and even the smallest lanes overflowed with people. To say the city's crowds impressed me is definitely something after two years in China.

The restaurants continued the "sea of humanity" theme. Each one we dined in was a multi-storied complex packed with rowdy diners and scrambling waitresses juggling heaps of dishes. Besides all the Muslim delights, the order of the day seemed to be dumplings, dumplings and more dumplings.

The hotel my mother and I stayed at, the Melody if I remember correctly, was at the heart of the action. It was located between the Bell and Drum Towers, and our room had a great view on a square bustling with families late into the night (this space was also allegedly home to a beer garden, but we never found it). It was from this vantage point that we could see the Muslim Quarter go up in smoke every evening.

Of course, the Melody also provided my mother with a proper introduction to the Chinese hospitality industry. For the first two nights the phone rang off the hook, and when that wasn't enough the knocks and giggles came at the doorway. At first we couldn't figure out why we were being so constantly pestered, but soon we realized the hotel had the kindness to put us on the same floor as the health spa/massage parlour. Perfect.

In terms of sightseeing, our biggest adventure was walking the city wall. We made if from the South Gate to the North Gate with a few detours around repair work, including one that put us in the middle of a primary school troupe pouring out for lunch (marching songs and all). The vantage point from the wall was pretty impressive, allowing one to see both the grid of the Old City and the outside sea of shoddy highrises disappearing into the haze.

Arriving at the North Gate, we realized to our horror that there was a fence blocking the wall from the gate complex, and it was locked. Completely unwilling to trek back several kilometres to the previous exit, my mom instead took the initiative and climbed around the outside of the fence, where it hung past the wall and over the street below. Necessarily, her cowardly son followed. I think the Japanese tour groups were pretty entertained.

Our trip out to the Terra Cotta warriors was yet another lesson in why to avoid ANY sort of Chinese tour, even the half-day variety. By the time we got to the site itself, we had visited so many shops, jade factories and manufactured places of interests that I could have done with just sleeping in the van. I had yet to see one of the real figures, and yet I was already sick of that blank stare, having seen hundreds of thousands of their fake cousins in every window of every building.

The real things were, thankfully, still impressive, making for a fascinating archeological site. There is nothing I can say here about the warriors that hasn't been said already. The thing I remember most from that particular tour, however, was the visit to Chiang Kai- shek's hiding place (of Xi'an Incident fame). Our group was looking out from the hill over the Sha'an Xi countryside. In front of us was a blighted industrial town, its dreariness surpassed only by the noxious layer of smoke settled over it.

The tour guide announced this town was an example of how everything was getting better, because "there were more and more tall buildings". As I looked at the dilapitated concrete towers, whose embezzled construction funds likely provided a BMW or three to the local official, I wondered what was scarier:

That our guide might actually believe this, or that she thought we were stupid enough to believe it?

When another member of our group sarcastically asked why he couldn't see most of the buildings, the guide responded it was because of the "frost" (I think she meant fog, seeing as it was June). She continued on to tell us that there was no pollution in the countryside; that was the cities' problem. Interesting, seeing as the landscape seemed to be sprouting more smokestacks than crops. I love Chinese tours.

Xi'an, I will admit, is probably not for everyone. It's dusty, dirty and disorganized. It doesn't have much glitz or glamour. Like other inland Chinese cities, its desperate desire to play a part in China's modernization craze has resulted in a number of monstrous concrete graveyards and abandoned infrastructure. Unlike the east coast, it just doesn't have the money to play New York. Some would probably say it is nothing more than a polluted industrial sprawl cashing in on its once illustrious history.

But to these people I say: what Chinese city isn't a polluted industrial sprawl cashing in on its once illustrious history? For all its shortcomings (at least from the Chinese point of view), Xi'an still manages to retain a strong character. Perhaps this lies in the originality of the Old City, or in the neighbourhood streets. It is pretty hard to pin down. In Xi'an I had a strange sensation: by all means this should not be a pleasant city, but somehow it manages to be one of the more pleasant in the country. Its role as a central Chinese industrial entity should have erased any culture decades ago, but instead the city feels like one of the more cultured in the country. Xi'an, despite itself, is cool.

Our valuable Editor Patrick has been with us since Monday, 25 April 2011.
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