Like most of China at the moment, Xian is undergoing a facelift. With the economy booming, increased tourist traffic and a thriving university scene, the city has continued to transform itself into a modern metropolitan city. In fact Jules and I were quite surprised by the sheer size of the place as we drove the 40 km trip in from the airport. With it being one of the oldest cities in China and given its historical significance, I guess we were anticipating something just a little bit smaller. Of course this is China after all and considering its population, everything appears to be super-sized here. Now pushing toward 10 million people, the city of Xian has sprawled well beyond the ancient walls that originally fortified it’s buildings from 900AD and has inherited many of the similar congestion and air pollution issues that we saw in Beijing. However, it soon became evident to us that this was a very different place, with much stronger cultural ties and what appeared to be a more determined effort to make it much more livable.
As we traveled around the streets of Xian, we could see many of the familiar images that westerners tend to associate with China … pagodas, lanterns, dragons and the ever present use of red paint. This shouldn’t be totally surprising as we were told that the city had become the model for just about every Chinatown in the world and in the centre of the city its citizens appeared to be making every effort to uphold its global reputation. What we particularly liked in their planning were the many dedicated areas for numerous forms of recreation. While land was clearly at a premium, it was good to see some spaces were being set aside for parks, market areas and outdoor cafes. We particularly enjoyed the grounds that surrounded The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda where families could be seen flying kites that often trailed high into the sky. Around the ancient and beautiful seven tiered pagoda (originally built in 652 AD), much had been done to develop the area surrounding the original monetary into a popular place to meet and relax. Much like the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy, the pagoda itself has over the centuries subsided to also create a slight lean, so as you can imagine, there were many photos being taken of people attempting to push it back into position. Another popular pastime for the locals was dressing themselves in traditional Chinese outfits from centuries ago and having a photograph taken near the Pagoda. It seems that here, as in the west, there still remains a very romantic notion of days gone by and this remains the perfect place to recreate the scene.
For one of the best views of the old city we headed to Xian’s ancient wall. It is amazing that despite its age the structure remains totally in tact and open to the public. Standing around 12 metres tall (40ft.) and with a perimeter of almost 14 kilometers (8.5 miles), the wall remains quite an imposing structure despite being dwarfed by the many surrounding high-rise buildings. Years ago the cities governing powers had sensibly decided to restrict building heights inside the walled city in order to preserve its cultural integrity, so today it is quite easy to differentiate the old from the new. From a top of the wall ramparts it is also possible to see many important cultural buildings such as the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower, which were both used for ceremonial purposes as well as sounding the alarm in case of attack. Jules and I just couldn’t resist hiring a bike and riding along the top of the wall to take it all in! While the cobblestone surface was a bit rugged in parts, riding the ancient boundary wall of the old town on a tandem was a great experience and certainly a highlight of our time in Xian. The trek also helped to burn off some of the extra calories that we had accumulated from the banquet lunches we had been having each day since first arriving in China.
The city of Xian had been a pleasant surprise. Although totally different than we had imagined, we had found it to be a far more amenable city than Beijing, even though the smog might still take a bit of getting used to. Rather than blindly charging ahead in the name of progress, it had appeared that Xian had thought a little more about the cultural heritage that the city had inherited from its many great dynasties and had balanced it well against its modern vision for the future. For a city whose history began over 7000 years ago, it has certainly come a long way! Much like the days when Xian was an integral part of the Silk Road trade route, we certainly sensed that it would continue to be a much sought after destination for both traders and tourists alike.