Xi’an is a big distraction because it has so many attractions! I felt like a monkey surrounded by so much bright and shiny bling! Every time I focused on going to one place, I’d see an equally interesting one and want to go there, too! Not what you want to do when you only have two days left to explore this wonderful city.
The old city is contained by a thick wall, eight miles long, with four gates. It is one of the best preserved fortifications in China. You can actually walk or cycle on the top because it so wide. My goal, my one full day left, was to go to the South Gate and beyond as that seemed to be where the sites I most wanted to see were located. So I was on my way to the Shaanxi History Museum, considered one of the best in the country, but unfortunately, I ran into the artist community of Shuyuanmen at the South Wall! This is a cool area. It is full of old buildings that have been preserved in the best way. They restored many of them, but did not overdo it, so the area is old-world charming. There are musicians, fine art painters, paper shops (calligraphy is still considered an art form), great noodle vendors, and a myriad of streets to walk and crafts to watch the artists create. There are even a few Western-style pubs along the south wall here. It is a little touristy, but not too much so.
I finally made it through the gate and out of the old city and started walking in the direction of the museum. I don’t know why, but I decided to walk in that brutal sun, even at that early hour, stopping at every convenience store I passed to buy water! I finally reached West Youyi Street and saw a sign for the Small Wild Goose Pagoda—Distraction 2! It was only just down the street, seemed a shame not to go! Was I glad I did. Don’t let the word “small” fool you. The 15-storey pagoda was built in 707AD. Other structures on the grounds date from the 7th century. The park-like setting provided a number of places for someone to get lost and quietly meditate for 20 minutes as I did. You can then pass through a connecting gate to find yourself at the Modern Xi’an Museum. (Distraction 3!) I love the bright well-designed central court and each level is loaded with beautiful pottery, sculpture, calligraphy, and ink drawings. There’s even an area devoted to the old international currencies found at Xi’an over the years.
After a bowl of noodles, (Xi’an is famous in China for its noodles. And when the Chinese tell you that, believe it!) I finally focused on finding the Shaanxi Museum. It was actually a lot farther away than the map suggested, so I took the subway there. When I finally arrived, I was greeted by a line with what had to be 400-500 people! Well, it was Sunday and the holiday time in China! I consider it a very good reason to return here someday, just not in the summer!
Disappointing it was, but I decided to press on and visit the Big Wild Goose Pagoda while I was in that area. This site is more like a modern park than the Small Wild Goose Pagoda. You enter a well-sculpted space where there is a welcomed breeze. I stopped there a while just to relax and enjoy doing nothing at all! The pagoda is covered with scaffolding as they are doing some work on it, but you can still see its size and form. There is a lot to see here and you notice that it is developing into an attraction centered on the pagoda, which is supposed to contain some Buddhist relics and ancient scripts. As it was getting late, I then walked along the mall-like walkway going north. Exploring the pagoda itself and immediate vicinity will have to await the next visit. Although it was quiet that day, the shops along the way seem to cater to a weekend crowd of tourists and families, with gaming shops, souvenir vendors, and restaurants. The mall is largely concrete and the reflected sun was dizzying in that heat. I slowly made my way back to the subway, past the museum, which still had a long line at 3:30 in that sizzling sun. The subway at Xiaozhai was in a bit of confusion. The ticket kiosk was down, but some of the ticket machines were working. So I figured out where to go, but another unfamiliar screen came up asking questions— in Chinese! A kid behind me was very helpful sorting it all out and off I went. Don’t know why everything EXCEPT the subway stops on the ticket machines are in Chinese, Pigin and English! It wouldn’t be that hard to install machines with buttons to switch languages on the screen as in other systems I’ve seen.
It wasn’t long before I reached my stop at Beidaje. I went to the hotel to catch a short rest and cool down in the air conditioning for 30 minutes. Then it was out again in search of the Muslim Quarter. That is until the Bell Tower and nearby Drum Tower distracted me again! It was getting close to evening and a lot was already happening. I wandered so much in this area that I decided to eat at a restaurant on West Road. I had a nice traditional Xi’an soup with a light broth loaded with mushrooms, pork meatballs, cabbage and other vegetables and, of course, noodles! So tasty! I spent the rest of the evening in the carnival atmosphere around the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower. So many people out! Quite a few came up to practice their English just to say, “Hello,” or get a selfie with me! It was fun just sitting there watching the street performers or listening to music. At about 10:00, I had had it and returned to the hotel to finally collapse!
As my train for Shanghai did not leave until 4:40, I had a good part of the next day to explore the Muslim Quarter (FINALLY)! I got up early and checked out leaving my bags at the hotel. I went down to the South Gate again and this time went right into an old neighborhood. The tree-lined streets and atmosphere here would make it the ideal place to live. I looped north through shops and restaurants in a place one can only describe as quaint!
Eventually, I found Beinanse Street and followed it north till I reached the Park Hotel, whose wide arches do double duty as the gateway to the Muslim Quarter. It is a fascinating place to be! You could easily spend the day just in this one place alone. Walking through the gate, you are immediately aware that you are not only transported to a different culture, but a different time as well! The streets are narrow, crowded, and chaotic with people and every sort of small vehicle, horns beeping at everything in their way which means constantly! The buildings along the narrow, twisted lanes are all old and generally about two to three storeys high. If you are into souvenirs, this is your place to go. But it is the food that attracts you the most for its infinite variety. The Muslim Quarter is a great place to snack and sample your way through what passes as lunch. I began with pulled beef on a round bun (delicious), then gluttonous rice cut in wedges (phenomenal), the topped off with thick Udon-looking noodles with a choice of toppings. I took the sesame based sauce— incredible! There is just so much you can eat during one visit, however. I never got to the kebab or the mutton stew with crumbed round flat bread. I did buy some of the bread, but it is far too dry to eat by itself. There are nuts and fruit galore. You can constantly hear the cranking of the roasters as they stir their big, fragrant kettles of nuts.
When I noticed it was already 2:00, I had only about one hour left of my adventure here and still had to visit the Great Mosque (Da Qingzhen Si). Built in 742 AD in the Tang Dynasty, it is an architectural wonder blending both Arabian and Chinese styles and yet with its own unidentifiable flare. The minaret itself resembles a pagoda. The mosque is surprisingly not the easiest place to find. I ran into someone who directed me down a very narrow passageway that led right to the Mosque itself. You are greeted by a happy guy who collects your 25 yuan and you enter a space as quiet as the rest of the quarter is not! Wonderful small gardens and aging structures let you know you are some place different and special. The main prayer hall looked very interesting, but non-Muslims are not allowed in it. I did manage 15 minutes to just sit and take it all in before coming to the realization that it was just past 3:00 and my train was at 4:40. As with so many other places in this historic city, I made a mental note to return to the mosque and further explore the interesting side streets of the quarter.
But there are adventures that await and I was glad to at least have had a few days Xi’an. I had come here to see the warrior statues, but left with a greater appreciation for the city itself and its wonderful historical significance.
Next stop Shanghai on the regular 14-hour night train!