KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
With preparations for our visit to Tibet underway, we flew to Xi'an in Shaanxi Province to visit the famous Terracotta Warriors. Several people had told us they enjoyed the city much more than Beijing. We looked forward to leaving the pollution behind us, but had to admit that there was plenty more to see in the capital city and that we would love to return to take in some of the less famous sights there.
We landed at dusk and passed through the West Gate of the old city wall. Historians report that this city was home to at least eleven dynasties stretching all the way back to the 11th century B.C. The central block of today's Xi'an is surrounded by 12m high and 18m thick walls, with a perimeter of 14 km. It's possible to walk along the wall in a relaxing four hours or for those with less time, bicycles are available at each of the four gates.
We had been so comfortable at the Super 8 Hotel in Beijing that we booked rooms at the Super 8 near the heart of Xi'an. I have to say that I have more than a little prejudice about the quality of the hotel chain in North America, but we have been pleasantly surprised here in China. The number "eight" is a very lucky number for the Chinese; perhaps this explains why the franchise is so successful here. The rooms are much like the Best Western hotels back home and seem to be popular with businessmen. I love the fact that there is free internet in all guest rooms, which makes it much easier for us to use our laptop without hunting for places with wireless connections. The Super 8 in Xi'an is located at the end of a small lane lined with small sign-making shops. It's a hive of activity late into the evening and like the Super 8 in Beijing, there is a feeling of being in a cozy neighbourhood even though we are steps from the amenities of the big city.
Our first evening in Xi'an was spent exploring the old city core and admiring the Bell and Drum Towers, which are lit up beautifully at night. The Bell Tower originally held a large bell that was rung at dawn and the Drum Tower signaled nightfall. The towers were constructed in the 14th century and were rebuilt in the 1700s. We were impressed to see many modern buildings nearby constructed to blend with the architecture of the towers.
Our favorite area of the old city lies north of the Drum Tower, down narrow lanes lined with shops, cafes and small mosques. It is the Muslim Quarter, home to the city's Hui community for centuries. The Chinese men here all wear skullcaps and the food on display is unlike much of what we have seen in Beijing or Shanghai. We spent some enjoyable time wandering along the lanes and visiting an historic residence now serving as an art gallery cum entertainment center cum teahouse.
One of the things I don't want to miss mentioning is how impressed we are with the wide streets and spacious sidewalks we have encountered throughout Beijing and Xi'an. It is hard to imagine how the city planners had the foresight to design the cities with so much space for people to move around. I do know that the ancient cities were built with narrow streets and alleys (hutongs) and that much of these have been bulldozed to make way for the skyscrapers, city streets and countless expressways. Still, the planners could have packed everything together more tightly but chose not to. The fact that the sidewalks are generally two to three times wider than those at home in Canada prevents us from feeling claustrophobic when moving around on foot. There are people everywhere in these cities of millions and millions, but strangely, we never feel overwhelmed. There is a delightful combination of people on foot, on bicycle and small motorcycles to counter the bus and cars on the road. Everything seems to flow amazingly well considering that most drivers have only been on the roads for the last few years. Until recently, China was a nation of cyclists.
Our last day in Xi'an was spent visiting the Terracotta Warriors outside the city. We opted for a breakfast of Egg McMuffins at the nearby McDonald's, our first western food since arriving in China three weeks earlier. Big mistake, as you will learn in my entry about our visit to the Warrior's Museum.