Despite my mortifying departure from Beijing, my flight and entry into the ancient city of Xi’an went smoothly. My guide – a dead serious man in his early 60’s, with little to say, which is odd but kind of comforting in a tour guide – and driver picked me up at the Xi’an airport early in the day.
Xi’an was the capital of China from 221 BC to 904 AD. It was also the starting point for the famed Silk Road, the ancient trade route running from China all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. Today Xi’an is probably best known for being the largest city near the world-famous Terracotta Warriors archaeological site. It’s a huge city, with a city population of about 9 million and a metropolitan population of about 14 million, making it China’s ninth largest metropolitan area.
We drove from the airport through a gate in the old city walls into the city center. The walls were built by prisoners between 1370 and 1378 AD to provide protection from the always-marauding Mongols. Soldiers stationed in the four towers at the top of the walls kept watch and shot arrows down at endeavoring invaders. According to a sign at the South Gate, the dirt-filled brick walls run about 14 kilometers in circumference (about 9 miles) and measure between 12 and 18 meters (40-60 feet) wide at the base, tapering up 12 meters (40 feet) high to the top.
The walls still encircle the city center, making them the most complete remaining set of ancient city walls in China, although the original surrounding moat has been filled in. Bells were rung in the morning from the still-extant Bell Tower to announce the opening of the city gates. Drums were beaten from the still-extant Drum Tower to announce the evening closing of the gates. Both towers were also built in the fourteenth century.
Foreign visitors to Xi’an often complain that for an ancient city, it looks awfully modern. And it does. On the drive to the hotel I look up and down the street for landmarks as a part of my ongoing struggle not to get lost in each new city I visit. I note that there is a McDonald’s, a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a Pizza Hut on the block with my hotel, thinking that they should make the street easy to identify again. My orienting efforts are not, as it later turned out, particularly helpful. There is a McDonald’s, a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a Pizza Hut on most of the major streets in old downtown Xi’an.
Still, Xi’an is my favorite major Chinese city of all those that I have visited as a tourist so far, partly because it is the one where I get lost the least frequently. The distinctive Bell Tower sits smack in the center of the city. Building height restrictions mean that there are no tall buildings in the old city. If I lose my way, I just have to walk a few blocks until I see either the Bell Tower or the city walls, and I can find my bearings again. For a person who spends much of her time lost and wandering, it is liberating.
The first day I arrive I’m on my own after my guide and driver drop me at my hotel. I decide to visit the Bell Tower. It’s a three-block walk from my hotel. The traffic in Xi’an is the worst I have ever seen – worse even than the traffic in L.A., or Mexico City, or Rome, or Beijing, or Tangier -- not worse in the sense of heaviest, but worst in the sense of wildest. There are few street lights. Pedestrians wait at street corners until a space in the traffic opens up and then dash into the middle of the busy street, glancing wildly back and forth as cars race up, slowing just slightly to avoid crashing into the walkers. The only time I have been truly frightened on my trip to China is crossing the streets of Xi’an.
I find the Tower easily, but am stumped when I find myself looking at it from across the wide, circular avenue that rings the entire building. It’s “marooned on a traffic island,” as my guidebook puts it. No pedestrians are attempting to dart into the speeding circle of cars, buses, bicycles, and little mini-vehicles that fill out the Chinese traffic scenes. If it’s too dangerous for Xi’an pedestrians, then it must be truly deadly.
I have been in China long enough to know that if I don’t see a crowd of people waiting to cross a street, then there is an alternate way to cross. I look around until I spot the entrance to a tunnel leading under the street.
I walk down the stairs into the tunnel and follow the yellow arrows labeled “Bell Tower” around in a circle to a set of stairs.
I run up those stairs, excited for once to have found a tourist site on my own without getting lost, only to find myself back in the exact same place on the surface street where I had entered the tunnel.
(Well, duh. I should have expected that. The arrows had taken me around in a circle, after all.)
I’ve been tricked by yet another set of cunning Chinese arrows. There are arrows everywhere on the streets here, but they’re only helpful some of the time. Arrows on traffic signs and in buildings often point straight up or down when there’s nothing above or below. Do they mean left, right, north, or south, maybe? I have no idea. Other arrows point cheerfully in the wrong direction entirely. Maybe there’s a trickster going around China flipping all the signs around. More likely it’s some sort of cultural literacy that as a foreigner I lack.
Regardless, I go back into the tunnel, ignoring the arrows this time. I finally see a wall map which indicates the proper exit for the Bell Tower. I buy my ticket and climb the steps up to the old tower. It is a cavernous red building, built large to house the bells and to amplify their sound. Ornate carving and painting on the outside and inside of the building indicate that it is a government building with an official government purpose. There are excellent views of the city (and of the hair-raising street traffic) from the top floor.
Inside the main hall is a reproduction of the old bells that were once played there.
By chance I have arrived during a musical performance. Six musicians play Chinese folk songs on traditional Chinese instruments, including some bells. The music is clear and lively, and the setting is gorgeous.
Still smiling with the pleasure of the music, I leave the Bell Tower and enter the traffic tunnel again, this time emerging at the proper exit without incident. I walk across the old city center to the South Gate of the city walls. The original (but heavily renovated) guard houses and gates still stand in each of the four cardinal directions around the walls; the South Gate is the largest. I enter the gate and buy a ticket.
The ticket sales area is enormous, with several sales windows and long rails to guide long lines of tourists up to the gates. Today I’m the only person buying a ticket, though. In fact, the entire place is strangely devoid of the tourists who throng every other tourist site in the country.
I wander into the area behind the ticket windows. There’s a large, empty courtyard; a deserted café; and an empty museum describing the efforts of the Xi’an Ancient Walls Historical Society to preserve and renovate the walls.
I stop at the bathroom. It is the cleanest Asian squat toilet that I have yet seen in China.
Before I left for China, my son, who had done a much more thorough job of reading guidebooks and researching the trip than I had, took me aside one day and spoke to me in a serious tone: “Mom, I need to tell you about the Asian squat toilet. You won’t like it.”
He was right; I was rather put off by the first few I encountered, but by the time I had been in China for a week or so, I barely gave them a second thought. The thought has occurred to me that if I’m no longer afraid of the Asian squat toilet, then there’s not much left in life that I am afraid of. Chinese women, on the other hand, seem to strongly prefer the squat toilet to the Western-style commode. In a Beijing airport bathroom, there were eight stalls, four with pictures on the doors depicting squat toilets and four depicting commodes. As I stood in line, one of the commode stalls became unoccupied. The four women in front of me in line all shook their heads, one by one down the line, each determined to wait for an available squat toilet. I went ahead of them into the stall that no one else wanted. Most Asians consider the no-touch squat toilet to be cleaner than the sit version, and I can see their point. The floors around the squat toilets can be pretty messy, though. In truth, there’s probably no truly clean public toilet system.
I wander around the courtyard a bit more until I see stairs leading up to the top of the walls. I climb the stairs and walk out up top. The views of the city are even better up here than from the Bell Tower. The old city -- small, old buildings, traditional houses, as well as fancy hotel, shops, and restaurants catering to tourists -- is off to my right. The new city -- endless rows of high-rise apartment buildings and business skyscrapers -- is off to my left. There’s a bicycle rental shop up here. Occasionally two or three bikers pass by, riding singly or on tandem bikes. I decide to walk to take in the experience more slowly, more fully.
I soon realize why the walls are nearly deserted, except for the scattered bikers: it’s incredibly hot today. The heat climbs up to 102 degrees, and the humidity is thick. At 5:00 and even 6:00 in the late afternoon the sun is still high and hot in the sky. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) decreed in 1949 that the entire country would operate in the same time zone. This makes travel from one city to another easy, but it also means that those living in the West of the country eat breakfast in the dark, while those in the Eastern reaches dine in the dark.
With the heat keeping less intrepid travelers off of the unshaded walls, most of the time I am the only person I can see for long stretches of the road. It’s a glorious feeling to be alone after having been around crowds for most of the past three weeks. Rather than minding the heat, I luxuriate in it: it’s the heat that is enabling me to experience this beautiful afternoon all on my own. I walk along, gazing over the walls down at the ancient and modern city, listening to music on my headphones, my MP3 player set to shuffle. Bishop Allen’s “Chinatown Bus” comes on, the perfect song to accompany my walk, its lyrics painting vivid images of Shanghai and Tokyo. I walk the full circumference of the walls, all nine miles, in time to the music, singing loudly and off-key when no one else is within earshot. It is the most joyous experience of my entire time spent in China, and an afternoon I will never forget.
For dinner I head to the Muslim Quarter, the area in the old city where the Xi’an Muslim population once lived. Now it’s a popular outdoor dining and shopping area. Shops and carts selling dried fruits, nuts, and other Middle Eastern treats line the twisting streets. Bakers bake loaves in open street ovens. Noodle makers pull noodles from fat ropes of dough out in front of their restaurants, hoping to entice diners.
Fried foods are a street food cart specialty here, especially chicken and splayed open sea creatures, filleted and dipped into crunchy batters.
I have learned from weeks of eating out in China that the best food is often sold by street vendors. I dine on a large, circular, cumin-sprinkled bread loaf (excellent), fried tofu with a spicy sauce (OK, but not great), a cup of freshly-pressed pomegranate juice (a regional specialty), and half a box of walnut-shaped walnut cookies (very meta and very tasty).
I return to my hotel room after 10:00, late for me, as I have been staying in my hotel rooms in the evenings to try to reduce the amount of time I spend outside when the air pollution is the worst. Although Xi’an is the smallest of the four big cities I have visited in China, it seems to me to have the worst pollution. Located in a major coal-producing region, three large coal processing plants power the city, belching out black smoke that leaves the air gritty and grey. After having been in China for over three weeks now, I am having serious trouble seeing. The combination of allergies to a new climate, eye swelling from the air pollution, and eyes watering from the ever-present cigarette smoke (49% of Chinese males smoke) has magnified my already severe myopia. My vision has steadily deteriorated until I can’t even read metro station signs from inside the trains at station stops, even though they are painted in large English letters. Often on the trains there are recorded English announcements saying the names of each stop, but just as often the noise of the crowded trains makes the announcements inaudible. I have learned before getting on a train to count the number of stops so that I can travel around without being able to read the station signs.
I have come quickly to love the city of Xi’an; it makes me sad to see the thick pollution clogging up the sky and darkening the city. It reinforces the seriousness of the Chinese overpopulation issue. I can understand (but never support) the logic behind the government’s infamous one-child policy. Started in 1978 to combat population growth, just last year the PRC announced the end to the policy. It did quell the rate of population growth, but it also left the country with a top-heavy population – too many elderly and not enough young people to take care of them. Some of the younger people I have talked to are excited about the possibility of having more than one child, but most tell me that they still plan to have just one child, or no children at all. Competition for Chinese university spots is fierce, and private K-12 education increases the chance of securing a good university spot. Few people can afford to put two children through private schools, people tell me. “And two children seems like so much work! I could never do it,” adds a woman I chat with as she is being dragged down the street by an exuberant three-year-old.
These are unusual ideas to me, as an American who is accustomed to a two-child household average as a cultural norm. I am struck by the power and influence that a government policy can have on an entire nation. Had I grown up a Chinese citizen, my daughter, my second child, probably wouldn’t exist, a thought that jolts me awake right as I’m falling asleep in my hotel room that night. I realize how much we are products of our sociopolitical environments, not just in small ways, such as viewing a certain type of toilet as preferable, but in larger ways, too, such as determining how many children we have. When I see my daughter again at the end of the China leg of my trip, I will be sure to hug her extra tightly and to marvel at the fact that the random happenstance of my being born in the U.S. has resulted in her beautiful and precious existence.
Click here to listen to Bishop Allen’s “Chinatown Bus.” Be sure to listen to the masterful lyrics.