Thursday, January 04, 2007

Jet Set Jeff Explores Xi'an

After visiting the city of Beijing, my entourage and I jetted off to Xi'an. Xi'an was the capital of China for around four hundred years, until about fifteen hundred years ago. It's famous for nearby historical sites, especially the terra-cotta warriors. However, on its own it's a very enjoyable city of seven million people, and this update will be talking about the city by itself.

First impressions weren't that good. After arriving at the modern airport, we hopped in a cab and took the highway into town. The highway was dark, there were piles of dirt just lying around, there were coolies walking in the middle - the driver took the road at about 30 miles an hour. Days later, on the way back, I saw that the highway was literally in the middle of being constructed. Anyway the highway wasn't yet navigable all the way into town, so we got off early and found ourselves snaking through impoverished city streets. Surreal and difficult to describe, among other things there were miles and miles of shacks like this:

When we reached the center of town, there was a sudden and complete shift. Bright lights, wide boulevards, shopping centers, and immense restaurants, all anchored around beautiful ancient buildings. You can see the drum tower and the street restaurants in the picture to the left, underneath is a picture of the 14th century bell tower:

I very rarely come across new tastes or food in Shanghai, maybe the biggest exception is the Sichuanese ma flavor, it numbs your mouth like Novocain. By contrast, half the food in Xi'an looked like nothing I had seen before! Not in an exotic way, though - there was a lot of mutton and wheat dishes. This restaurant I went to was fun, maybe something like a higher-quality and spectacularly busy cafeteria - you pointed at what looked tasty, and they handed it over. Not the greatest food in the world, but passable, and a relaxed atmosphere counts for a lot:

Unlike Shanghai, where for the most part the sidewalks are narrow, crowded, and full of obstacles in your path, walking on the wide sidewalks of Xi'an was very easy and fun, and even at its most crowded you didn't feel pushed. Unfortunately I didn't get a good photo of this, but here are some street vendors, set up on the sidewalks just a little off the main drag, again with the bell tower in the background:

Everything you would expect from a fairly wealthy city was here: night clubs, malls, five star hotels, and elite clothing brands. In the back of my mind I couldn't get past the miles and miles of poverty we had driven through, to get to this city center. Just one of many examples of these small upscale stores is a local cafe chain selling fancy pastries: the name was something like "American Bakery."

I should also mention that the city walls are still extant, surrounding the city center. They're very beautiful, from what I understand Xi'an is almost finished restoring the entire wall, so you can walk along the top for the whole circumference. Very cool, by contrast in most Chinese cities the walls have long been torn down, with perhaps small fragments of the city walls still remaining. There were also various districts of older buildings, many of which are partly or largely supported by the tourist industry:

I didn't have as much time as I'd have liked, and I really regret not being able to have a look at the Muslim Quarter or the Silk Road Museum. Also, I'm stealing a lot of the photographs for this update from my father, I hope he's a good sport about it and doesn't take me to court!


acidelic said...

I had the same feelings about the drive in from the airport to the center of the city. You go from modern to very poor back to modern. Just about every place in the city was excellent, however, we had a room at the back of the hotel. Just down below us was a very poor set of houses loaded with piles of garbage.

From the front (5 star hotel) you would never know it. Just next to the hotel was a very tall wall, probably put there to keep the desolate area out of view.

Jeff Rutsch said...


I got a kick out of your pictures of the city's traffic jams - even coming from California, I had never seen the like!