Saturday, 10 May 2014

Xi'an: Where the past meets the present

Divine sight: The Bell Tower of Xi’an is even more impressive at night when it’s lit up.

Divine sight: The Bell Tower of Xi’an is even more impressive at night when it’s lit up.

Modernity and traces of great ancient dynasties are intertwined in Xi’an.

Too expensive! The shop in front offered a lower price,” I exclaimed in broken Mandarin when I heard the price for this mug with beautiful oriental design. The middle-aged merchant gave me a puzzled look.

His bewildered expression prompted me to check the Google Translate app on my iPhone to make sure I had said the correct phrase. I wasn’t entirely sure if I had articulated what I meant to say, having spent a large part of my formative years in the northern side of the Malaysian peninsular (where the Hokkien dialect, rather than Mandarin, is used in daily conversations).

But in the bustling shopping district of Muslim Quarter in Xi’an (and the rest of the city), the lingua franca is the latter – a fact that’s hammered home every time I try to haggle with the local vendors. With the exception of a few shopkeepers who could hold a simple conversation in English, the non-Mandarin-speaking shopper would have to resort to plenty of made-up sign language. Pointing at a calculator helps, too.

Seeing a twenty-something dude with distinctive Chinese features struggling with his Mandarin must have amused the merchant. He chuckled before finally agreeing to my offer when I put on a show of taking my business elsewhere.

The Shaanxi History Museum houses a spectacular Buddhist grotto.
The Shaanxi History Museum houses a spectacular Buddhist grotto.

Located at the north of West Street in the city, the venue is the hub of the capital’s Muslim community and your best bet at souvenir-shopping. Navigating in the cold, cold afternoon (with below zero temperatures) through the narrow and twisted street that was flanked by quaint shops, I beheld a cornucopia of items – intricate paper cuttings, exquisite coin purses, antique hand mirrors and a cheeky “ObaMao” T-shirt, among others.

“You have to haggle when you shop here. The vendors enjoy it when you do that and the price can usually go down as low as 80% of the initial asking price,” advised my Chinese guide Cathy Liu. But then again, not everyone enjoys the act of persistent bargaining. If that’s the case, soak in the colourful sights, sounds and smells of the many shops and little restaurants with bold sign boards that line the dark pavement of the marketplace. Granted, the cacophony of the large crowd can be quite overwhelming at times. It doesn’t help that my guide had cautioned against pickpockets.

Although, by the time the allocated two hours at the Muslim Quarter – which is too brief a period to explore the vast area – were up, thieves were the least of my concerns as I wrestled with the weight of my bulky purchases while scouring the expanse for some hot street snacks to counter the cold February winter.

It’s perhaps a little ironic that I derived the most joy out of shopping in one of China’s oldest cities. Not that the historical side isn’t appealing.

Capital with an old soul

An ancient wall that serves to juxtaposition old and new encircles the city centre. In many ways, the City Wall of Xi’an – China’s most complete one that is still standing – defines, and is defined by, the people who dwell around it. Today, it stands tall as a symbol of the city’s enduring past.

“The wall can no longer protect the city’s occupants against attacks today, we know that. But it protects our spirit,” said Liu, when we passed the structure on our way to the hotel.

Historically known as Chang’an, the assimilation of past and present is evident in Xi’an. A 15-minute walk from the six centuries old Bell Tower of Xi’an is the contemporary Grand Noble Hotel where I stayed.

Built during the early Ming Dynasty in 1384, the brick and timber tower houses several large bronze-cast bells from the Tang Dynasty. The structure is even more impressive at night when it’s lit up, becoming a bright beacon of ancient Chinese majesty amid Western capitalist ventures in the vicinity.

From this landmark, the city’s main avenues – North, East, South and West Streets – extend to four corners of the capital. You’ll find these boulevards packed with numerous shopping malls and Chinese-Muslim restaurants.

Enjoying the signature halal food in Xi’an is an acquired taste. While the menu of rice and dishes (chicken, beer, mutton, green vegetables and tofu) doesn’t veer far from those found in Malaysian Chinese restaurants, I found the cuisines to be either too salty, spicy or oily on numerous occasions.

But if you’re seeking a novel culinary experience, the Crumbled Pancake in Lamb Soup dish is a must-try. The meal is traditionally served by first giving customers a hard bread that has to be crumbled into a bowl. A broth of lamb is then poured over it, which is soaked up by the bread. While the meal provides a refreshing dining experience, my palate didn’t immediately warm up to the distinct taste and texture of this local comfort food.

The land of emperors

With Xi’an’s history stretching back over 3,100 years, no trip to the city would be complete without a visit to its museums. Shaanxi province used to be the capital of 13 great dynasties and one can expect an overview of its illustrious past at the Shaanxi History Museum and Xi’an Museum.

Xi'an Museum is surrounded by a scenic grounds that include small lakes and gardens.

The exhibition halls at Shaanxi History Museum contain a myriad of interesting treasures, such as a magnificent Buddhist grotto and other ancient relics.

Xi’an Museum is located beside the famous Small Wild Goose Pagoda. Not much of a history buff, I spent most of my time roaming the scenic grounds between the museum and the pagoda.

One can’t help but marvel at the Small Wild Goose Pagoda. Throughout the years, the structure has survived over 70 earthquakes. The body cracked in one earthquake, but was later sealed back when another tremor hit the city years later.

Another famous pagoda is the much older and grander Big Wild Goose Pagoda at the Great Ci’en Temple grounds. The structure was erected in AD 652 to enshrine Buddhist scriptures, portraits and relics brought back by the monk Xuanzang from his 15-year pilgrimage to India. The man’s exploits are recorded in the well-known Chinese literature Journey To The West.

A statue of monk Xuanzang from the well-known Journey to the West tale is erected on the plaza outside the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.
A statue of monk Xuanzang from the well-known Journey to the West tale is erected on the plaza outside the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.

Outside the walls of the pagoda complex, visitors are greeted by a park and huge plaza. The spot is a popular night haunt among the locals as it showcases a musical water fountain show in the evening.

The capital boasts many notable landmarks, but one has to travel to the outskirts of Xi’an to visit the city’s other historical attractions. Located about 30km from the city centre is the Huaqing Hot Spring. The venue is home to a famous imperial bathing pool and various palaces in the course of its 3,000-year history.

Although the structures within the area were rebuilt in 1959, they adhered strictly to the Tang architectural style; visitors can expect to see genuine period buildings. But what strikes me most about the spring is the love story between Emperor Xuanzong and Concubine Yang Fei. The palace complex was the favourite resort of the emperor who spent many winters there with his beloved concubine.

About 20 minutes’ drive away and nestled in Lintong county is one of the most significant archaeological finds in the world – the Museum of Qin Terracotta Warriors and Horses. The life-size terracotta figures are icons that are synonymous with the ancient city, and it’s easy to see why.

The description at the museum’s entrance gives one an indication of the figures: “They are reputed as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’”.

The craftsmanship of the terracotta figues, arranged in battle formations, is simply astounding. Each of the warriors is distinctive – from the facial expression to the shape of the earlobes and costume design.

The Muslim Quarter is a popular tourist hub with its variety of shops and restaurants.
The Muslim Quarter is a popular tourist hub with its variety of shops and restaurants.

“It kind of makes you wonder how much time and effort those past artisans spent, don’t you think?” an English tourist asked his female companion as I was leaning on the railing that separates the excavation site from the walkway to snap some photographs.

If legacies from the past made Xi’an the historical gem that it is today, it’s the local contemporary society’s sense of historical pride that makes this ancient city shine.

A walk in the picturesque Tang Paradise during my final evening in the city validates that notion. What’s incredible about the cultural theme park is how everything that’s quintessentially Tang Dynasty – from the poetry and the songs to the majestic pavilions and market squares – has been seamlessly recreated in the heart of a bustling metropolitan.

And therein lies the true essence of Xi’an. Even as the city embraces the inevitable change of modernisation, traces from the past are always present, a constant reminder of the great capital that it once was and will continue to be.

> AirAsia X will commence four weekly flights from Kuala Lumpur to Xi’an (the only airline having direct flights) from July 2. It is now open for bookings. Ground arrangements in Xi’an were sponsored by Golden Destinations.

Tags / Keywords: Travel , Lifestyle , travel , Xi an , China , history , Asia , terracotta warrior , terracotta , Huaqing Spring , Muslim Quarter , Small Wild Goose Pagoda


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