A few days in Xi'an pt.1 The City Wall and the Muslim Quarter

I just returned from the northern Chinese city of Xi'an. One of the four ancient capitals of China, Xi'an now serves as the provincial capital of Shaanxi. This city of eight million was the easternmost origin of the Silk Road. Long term trade with the middle east has created a culture rich in people, religion, and material goods. 

Xi'an's city wall is a unique remnant of a more violent time. It's hard to imagine a time when you needed a 40 foot wall to keep your enemies out. It lends whole new meaning to the term "gated community".  Guard post structures are perched at the four corners of the wall. Archers were placed along the ramparts at 120 meter intervals to allow maximum ground coverage in the face of attack. Even with the early invention of explosives breaking into this city was no easy task. The fourth picture above shows the beautiful but imposing nature of the gate houses. They are in the architectural style of the Tang era with elongated roof spans that round up at the corners. Chinese city walls were designed to be a psychological deterrent as well as a physical one. Every aspect of the design is a show of power.

Although the earliest wall was started in the second century B.C. the current wall dates to the Ming dynasty (late 1300's). The wall's four sides subdivide the center of the city. As transportation methods evolved the wall was adapted to fit the size requirements of automobiles. It was a bit surreal to watch cars drive through gates that where constructed eight hundred years ago. Every time I passed underneath I felt I would walk back in time to find horse drawn carts and open marketplaces on the other side.

The top of the wall is more than 20 feet wide making biking and walking a popular activity. For 20 RMB (around 3 U.S.D) you can rent a bike and ride the 8 mile circumference. As I pedaled over the roughly hewn cobblestones I experienced a fascinating but unusual view of the city. The sensation was that of a giant looking down on a much smaller society. The height of the wall enabled me to be in the middle of the city without having to interact with the crowds of people. This was a peaceful break from the commotion of the tourist trade.

One corner of the wall forms the boundary of the Muslim Quarter. This area is known for its food and thriving night market. We spent an evening sampling the best street food that Xi'an had to offer. I went for the lamb sticks, which were well-spiced and hot off the open charcoal grill. (Click here for an excellent Muslim quarter photo essay by the Art of Backpacking.) The variety of meat on display confirmed this was not a place for the vegetarians among us. Sunflower seeds, honey candy, dried fruit, and sweet breads covered the desert options. I settled on dried kiwi to add a little color to my meat filled dinner. If not for my full stomach I could have walked through the Muslim Quarter for hours.

This market is a great example of the effect capitalist commerce has on mixing old and new China. The art of selling blurs time periods and styles reducing every object to a base commodity. Within the back alley maze of vendors you can buy everything from traditional paper cuttings, to ObamaMao Tshirts, to whole legs of lamb. There was very little order in each booth's display. Surprisingly this visual smorgasbord was not overwhelming. The sales people where pleasantly nonaggressive compared to Shanghai's fake markets where they pull on your shirt sleeve wanting to sell you the "highest quality" copy of your favorite products. As one of China's most popular tourist cities Xi'an strikes the perfect balance between respecting the past and packaging it for easy consumption by foreign visitors like myself.

This is the first installment of a travel series on the Northern Chinese City of Xi'an. Check back later in the week for the next post on the Terracotta Warriors.

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