I had a similar childhood to that of most first-generation immigrants. Considerable reluctance, slight curiosity, and the initial, burning desire to return to a country that’d mothered my 6-year existence.
Unlike most first-generation immigrants, this wish was granted after 3 years in Canada. Due to our familial arrangements, my parents shipped me off to a Chinese boarding school in Xi’an at the age of 9.
By then, my crying fits denouncing Canada had subsided to an all-time low. I’ve already established an appreciation for the country I’ve come to know as home. Yet, it was as if my parents were set to challenge and strengthen my sense of self.
In three years, we’ve moved 3 times- back and forth between North York and Scarborough-districts in Toronto. So when we decided that my time will be best spent learning Chinese and high-school grade mathematics in Xi’an, I unwillingly, yet curiously agreed.
As one of the oldest cities in China, Xi’an was the Capital of several vibrant Chinese empires- including the Golden Ages of Han and Tang dynasties. While it is capital no more, the city remains a potent educational, economic, and sociocultural cosmopolitan. It is also home to Terracotta Warriors, amazing cuisine and was the starting point of the Silk Road.
As with my previous schooling habits, I spent two years in 2 different boarding schools-a trend that resulted in 14 schools by the time I finished undergrad.
Other than street food, confusing Chinese characters, and my appointment as the Class English Representative, I recall very little about my two-year venture relearning a language I barely knew. On weekends, I’d stay at my aunt’s house in Beiguan Sub-district 北关 while Sundays usually saw to my squeezing onto overcrowded buses that took me to Xi’an International School, where I ate questionable canteen food and studied from 7 am to 6 pm.
Our girls-only dorm was divided into 3 sections, connected by a door-less entrance that gave our in-residence teacher easy access to monitor our daily routine. We slept on metal-framed bunk beds with 8 girls to each section, a common shower room shared among 24 girls. While school may be a blur, I remember the white porcelain squat toilets vividly. There were two to a bathroom, meaning all business may be done alongside a fellow comrade.
Aside from reciting stories about Lenin and the Long March, we studied English with grammatical accuracy. Having lived three years in Canada yet with little linguistic talent, my ‘have-been-aboard’ pronunciation just about balanced out my broken Chinese.
The headmaster of the second boarding school was one of my grandma’s friends. With some 2-300 students, the school was visibly less international. Instead of pearl white squatting pans, our outdoor washroom was a 10-meter long, 1-meter deep ditch separated by dividers between stalls. To facilitate the flow of caca, the separators did not extend far down.
To summarize, I spent a good chunk of my pre-teen years worrying that I’d slip and fall into a shit hole. Literally.
It was in this chaotic setting, however, that I quickly settled in and began adjusting to a city I’d come back to every couple years. Now, I hold a great appreciation for this rather polluted, undoubtedly populated metropolitan. Aside from its outward glamour, Xi’an’s history is as complex and diverse as that of Mecca.
Terracotta Warriors 兵马俑
It’d be an injustice to introduce Xi’an without mentioning the Terracotta Warriors. The first time I saw the assembly of sculptures was nearly a decade ago. I wasn’t fazed. But with time, this opinion quickly changed. Within this extravagant funerary setup, lies a historical and sociocultural significance combining China’s myths, legend, and 5000 years of civilized history unlike many others in the world.
The tomb was solely constructed for Qin Shi Huang (259 BC-210 BC), the first emperor of a unified China. Its existence is part of the emperor’s Mausoleum, an incredible if terrifying construction built for Qin’s afterlife activities. The massive space includes quarters for his concubines, pets, treasures, and much more. Legends have it that the main tomb holds a number of biological protections and booby-traps, thus it has yet to be excavated.
Emperor Qin’s reign was as controversial as that of Chinese history. His tactical reign greatly expanded China while he enforced major economic and political reforms that standardized the multitude of practices by former Chinese states. He also unified the Great Walls of China into a single frontier that prevented the invasion of Xiongnu, a nomadic tribe to the north. At the same time, Qin was said to be cruel and merciless. His constructions resulted in countless casualties while he himself searched endlessly for an elixir of life.
One of the most memorable legends was that of 孟姜女, Lady Meng Jiang. The tale speaks of Lady Meng’s husband, who was forced by the state into corvee labor to build the Great Wall. After some time, Meng embarked on a journey to bring him winter clothes, only to find that her husband had already died. Her weeping collapsed a section of the Great Wall.
HuaQing Palace 华清宫
Depending on how long you’d like to spend at each attraction, Terracotta Warriors and Huaqing Palace can be visited within a day. These two places are some 15 minutes apart by car and around an hour away from Xi’an city center.
Located at the foot of Mount Li, one of the major peaks of the Qinling Mountains, the palace is situated mid a beautiful backdrop of mountain ranges. The extravagant sphere was built in the early Tang Dynasty and became Emperor Xuanzong’s choice getaway. For Xuan, the palace was more than just scenic. It holds moments with his favorite imperial consort- Yang Guifei, one of the Four Beauties of ancient China, a woman with a face that ‘puts all flowers to shame’. Notably, Yang was the wife of Xuan’s son Li Mao. To prevent public criticism, Xuan arranged for her to become a Taoist nun before officially making Yang his consort.
Yet, the political situation in ancient China was in constant disarray. Following the Lushan Rebellion, Xuan was forced to put Yang to death. When Xuan fell from the throne, Huaqing Palace’s tourism declined rapidly. Beginning 1959, the People’s Republic of China carried out large-scale expansions and repairs, later establishing the historical site as an important tourist attraction.
Aside from the palace and pools, a hike up the mountains will bring forth a few temples and a beautiful view of the ranges below.
Muslim Quarter 回民街
As the first city to be introduced to Islam, Xi’an has a community of around 50,000 Hui Muslims amongst its 8.7 million population. The Muslim Quarter, a prominent food and cultural district is a local favorite. Not only does it gather a number of delicious Xi’an delicacies within a couple of dense, populated blocks, the quality and cleanliness of street food are also said to be sublime.
Characterized by bluestone paved walkways in-between Ming and Qing Dynasty architecture, the historic district has 10 mosques of different sizes; with the most famous being Huajue Alley Mosque 化觉巷清真大寺. Although a known tourist destination, the Muslim Quarter remains a local spot for snacking, shopping and leisure.
In the evening, the whole street embraces a rich, buzzing marketplace atmosphere that delivers nearly 300 kinds of specialty snacks such as cakes, dried fruits, and dessert. Behind these stalls are restaurants serving local delicacies, with some of my favorites being Pita Bread Soaked in Lamb Soup 羊肉泡馍, Cold Steamed Rice Noodles 凉皮, Hot and Pepper Soup 胡辣汤, and Kebab 羊肉串.
Despite the outward appearances of the Muslim Quarters, China has a history disparaging religious dogmas and remains a relatively homogeneous country associated with racial singularity. In these circumstances, Chinese minorities often face obstacles when trying to preserve their unique cultural lifestyles.
The Bell Tower 钟楼 & the Drum Tower 鼓楼 of Xi’an
Constructed in 1384 during the Ming Dynasty, the Bell Tower is located at the center of Xi’an. As the largest and most intact Bell Tower that remains in China, it was mainly used for timekeeping and distributing city-wide announcements. Fast forward to WWII, the structure was also used to issue warnings against ensuing airstrikes. Its distinct designs are representative of ancient Chinese architecture, which is in stark contrast to the modern centers that have been built around the area.
The Drum Tower was constructed in the same era, standing proudly some distance away facing the Bell Tower. Unlike the bell’s indication of dawn, the drum was used to mark the end of a day. The walk from the Bell Tower to the Drum Tower is brisk and scenic. Around 10 minutes apart, the two ancient structures are connected by a vast number of tourist favorites, including a Chinese-architectural inspired Starbucks, an underground mall, and various antique traps.
At night, both towers are decorated with a brilliant combination of red, green, and yellow lighting. It’s in huge contrast to the bumper-to-bumper traffic just streets over.
As of 2017, the Bell Tower entrance is 35 yuan (USD 5), with both towers at 50 yuan (USD 7.5). Children 1.2 m and shorter, elders 70 and above, active military members, disabled, and outstanding teachers with relevant documents can enter for free.
Giant Wild Goose Pagoda 大雁塔 & Small Wild Goose Pagoda 小雁塔
What I love about the Chinese language is its complexity, richness, and elegance. As official renditions, the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda and the Small Wild Goose Pagoda are two names presenting little of the proud edifice embodied by their Chinese counterparts.
Let’s be honest. Who’d think a place like the ‘Giant Wild Goose Pagoda’ would become home to one of the greatest interpreters of Han Buddhism after his 17- year pilgrimage to India for Buddhist scriptures??
For many, Journey to the West 西游记 has a familiar ring. The epic is based on Xuan Zang玄奘, a Buddhist Monk, detailing his travels with added folk elements and Taoist philosophy. Undoubtedly, the written volume, a televised, cartoon-ized, opera-ized, and inevitably, memorized journey of a monk, a monkey, Pigsy, and a banished general from heaven completed many a childhood.
In the past couple of years, the plazas surrounding Giant Wild Goose Pagoda was commercialized to receive the ever increasing tourist population. The North Square also houses the largest water show in Asia. Although admission is free, it is incredibly difficult to battle some thousands of people for a good view without forking a spot hours beforehand.
Show Time of the Musical Fountain
*No shows between November and January except on Chinese New Year.
|Monday, Wednesday – Friday||June 10 to October 5: 12:00, 21:00;
February 1 to June 9, October 6 to 31: 12:00, 20:30
|Tuesday||June 10 to October 5: 21:00;
February 1 to June 9, October 6 to 31: 20:30
|Weekend and other statutory holidays||June 10 to October 5: 12:00, 14:00, 16:00, 18:00, 21:00;
February: 1 to June 9, October 6 to 31: 12:00, 14:00, 16:00, 18:00, 20:30
Unlike most of the attractions mentioned above, Tang Paradise is a Tang Dynasty-inspired theme park. North of the original Tang Dynasty Furongyuan ruins, the park was modeled and rebuilt as per the style of Tang Dynastic royal gardens and is China’s first large-scale theme park displaying Tang imperial culture.
With lavish gardens and exquisite architecture, the only downside to this beautiful, vast sphere was Xi’an relatively grey skies.
When Chairman Deng opened China’s doors to foreign investment, the sudden shift from state-owned market to semi-controlled market jumpstarted Chinese economy. However, with an expanding industrial sector backing a fast-growing country, major cities began losing sight of blue skies. In Shanghai, Beijing, Xi’an and other metropolitans, smog has caused serious health concerns.
However, this is not the case for the whole of China. As a native, I highly recommend traveling out of major city centers and experiencing a Chinese air quality worth salvaging. Or, simply avoid the city during the day and explore these architectural favorites by night. Out of sight, out of mind. amiright?
Fortifications of Xi’an 西安城墙
One of my favorite places in Xi’an is its city walls. As one of the largest and best-preserved walls, the Fortifications of Xi’an was built in the 14th century. Incorporating embankments from the Sui and Tang Dynasties, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang of the Ming Dynasty built the edifice over an 8-year period for defensive purposes.
The Chinese have the habit of walking after a meal: 饭后百步走，活到九十九- a hundred paces after a meal will result in ninety-nine years of life.
When I was younger, the green space surrounding the City Walls was a noted leisure area for locals. At 8 pm, just after dinnertime, the periphery immediate the deep moat would be filled with families. Children ran around screaming their heads off while grandparents sat playing chess and fanning away the summer heat.
The wall is about 14 km in length, with a lookout tower every 120 m apart. The uneven height structure is designed to provide better aim at and eliminate incoming forces. Bicycle rental services are available near all entrances and can be returned at any service location. There are also sightseeing electric cars with tours some 50 minutes in lengths. One of the most remarkable entertainments is “Dream Chang’an”, a cultural performance, in fact, the only one in the world, with the theme of Tang Dynasty etiquette culture. It is breathtakingly beautiful, with performances from Thursday to Sunday 20: 30-21: 00. Ticket prices are 260 yuan (US 40).
My last trip to Xi’an was the summer of 2016. As with the rest of China, the metropolis has changed dramatically in the past decade. Its modern sphere and chic, foreign brands have resulted in a contrasting world. Nonetheless, the city remains a glorious bubble of energy and kept some of the most memorable parts of my pre-teen years, including delicious street food, no-fks-given dancing grandmas, and horrendous traffic jams.