I flew to Xian from Hong Kong, after making a short transfer from Taipei. Since I’d only booked my ticket a month before, all direct flights from Taipei were sold out or hugely expensive. HK to Xian was only about two hours, roughly a little less than Hong Kong to Beijing, or Taipei to Shanghai. However the plane, a Dragonair, was the most technologically backwards one I ever flew on. There was no personal entertainment system or overhead monitor, however there wasn’t even a basic music system! I’ve never flew on a plane, even as a kid, where there wasn’t a music system to listen to. Another hiccup on the flight was when the flight attendant asked me if I wanted beef noodles or rice, and after I answered noodles, somehow gave me a seafood noodles. It might have been a communication mixup, but the guy next to me also got the same mixup. Flying towards Xian, the terrain below became mountainous and we flew over some massive grey mountains that might have been Huashan. When we landed in Xian, I was distinctly unimpressed at the airport. It seemed quite small, because the luggage area hall was right behind the customs counters. Literally meters away.
Well, I got my luggage quickly, walked out of the airport and for the first time ever in mainland China, I was on my own, with no relatives or tour group with me. And it felt alright. I took the airport bus to downtown Xian, near the Bell Tower, which I found easily after asking an airport staff, though I also had to ignore a taxi driver who offered me a “good price” for R120. The bus fare was R26. Along the way to Xian, I saw a large billboard at the side of the highway which my poor Chinese could just about make out that it was proclaiming that the Diaoyutais were China’s. I was impressed by the highway toll booth which was built like an ancient Chinese fortification with traditional curved roofs. I remember the scenery was quite dreary with small factory or office buildings amid large expanses of grassland and empty space. As we entered Xian, the bus driver honked several times while zigzagging a bit. It wouldn’t be the first time I would experience this honking.
As the bus pulled into the city center, the Bell Tower came into view and I noticed how large and grey and busy the surroundings were. The bus stopped a little way off. I had expected to take the subway to reach my hotel, but I decided to walk. A woman selling maps had come up to me as I was putting on my jacket and I made the mistake of asking if she had any English ones. She did, but after looking at it I declined to buy it. I walked off, and she followed me for a short while, nudging me slightly and shouting in a desperate voice that the price was good. It didn’t feel nice, and I was filled with annoyance and a little sympathy. Eventually I made my “escape” and reached an intersection that was not near the Bell Tower.
Actually I was a little unsure at this point. I walked up to a traffic guide and asked him which way was Lianhu Road, where my hotel was, and between my mediocre Chinese and his accent, he eventually pointed me in the direction across the street at a building through which was a passageway. I crossed the road, walked through a passageway through the building and emerged into a lane filled with vendors, shoppers, and food stalls and restaurants. Bicycles and motorscooters drove up and down, while people clogged the lanes. Some of the vendors wore white rounded hats, meaning they were Muslims. I soon realized this was part of Xian’s fabled Muslim Quarter but I was too busy to sightsee, anxious as I was to get to my hotel. The further north I walked, the less the human traffic became, the shabbier the buildings appeared, and the tighter the lanes became. I felt slightly apprehensive, especially when I passed a woman who then exclaimed “he actually dares to pull a suitcase here (他敢拖行李到這)!” to her male companion. In truth, despite the throngs of people, I was the only one walking through with a suitcase and I was thinking it was stupid of me. Still, the traffic warden wouldn’t have casually suggested I walk through here if it was really dangerous. I stopped several times to check my map and ask people if I was on the right track, and each time I was, so I continued. Eventually I reached the end of the Muslim quarter which flowed into a park, in which across the road was my hotel. I entered the hotel’s bare lobby, where a single guy manned the desk, and checked in with relief. The male clerk processed my checkin without looking at my ID which was strange since I thought all non-mainlanders had to present IDs when checking into hotels.
Later that evening, I set out to explore a bit. The nearest subway station (Beidajie) was about 10 minutes’ walk from my hotel and the Drum Tower stop was one stop south. Beidajie station was spacious, clean and large, and when I walked to a ticket machine, a young guy nearby walked up to me. Quickly he showed me how to buy my ticket from the computerized booth system, which was a little confusing because you first had to select from line one or two, but only line two was operational. The cheapest trip on the Xian subway (1 stop) is RMB2, which is about NT$9. The cheapest single trip fare in the Taipei MRT (subway) is NT$15, which already is cheap compared to the West.
Exiting the Drum Tower stop was at first disorienting because I emerged into an underground circular passageway that extends in all directions. It was full of people, being Friday night, especially with smartly dressed young people and couples, much like Taipei. It took me a while to find a sign that led to an exit. When I got out, I was greeted by the radiant sight of the Bell Tower, big, ancient, and dignified. It was impressive, situated smack in the middle of a roundabout, lit up like a beacon on its massive base, with roads extending in all four directions, with traffic all around it. I ended up taking pictures of it from different spots on the intersection, each time going back down into the underground passageway and crossing over. On one corner, there was a large department store with a bright neonlit entrance and fountain. Next to it was a giant multi-storied post office. The department store was over 6 storeys high and had several international brandname stores, including both Muji and Uniqlo. Both were both much bigger than the branches at Miramar Centre back in my area in Taipei. Likewise, this could have been anywhere in Taipei, the department store was larger and just as fancy as the best ones there. Xian, old and dusty? Not quite.
Finally I walked to the Drum Tower which is a few minutes away on the Northwest corner of that intersection. This involved passing a regular shopping center on one side, a Starbucks on the corner that was a standalone structure with an all-wooden angular exterior, and a one-storey shopping center which was mostly underground. The walkway ended with a ramp that went upward to the Drum Tower. Making the short walk more interesting was that cars also drove along this walkway so you had to be aware. Likewise going up the ramp, you had to time your picture-taking of the Drum Tower in between cars going up or coming down.
The Drum Tower is larger than the Bell Tower, and is also situated on an imposing concrete base. The outer level of the Drum Tower is ringed with giant drums which were illuminated. Across the street from the Drum Tower was a large building lit up in color, which I later found out was another mall. It was lively out there whether by the Drum Tower or in the intersection around the Bell Tower, as there were many people around walking, sitting, selling, shopping, and taking pictures.
I walked around the streets a bit, went into a large electronics chain store, Gome I think it was, especially to see if HTC phones were sold (they were), and then headed back. It struck me that many buildings in the center of Xian were large. They were also mostly grey, straight, and topped with roofs and other details in ancient Chinese style. It may not have been cutting edge or the most aesthetically pleasing, but it didn’t look that bad either.
Xian is a city that was much different from my expectations. I thought it’d be an old, dusty, sleepy big city, with the terra cotta warriors being the only things that made it relevant in modern times. Yet economically, Xian,the capital of Shaanxi province, is a regional powerhouse. It’s got burgeoning heavy and high-tech industries and is a gateway to the West, It’s a vital component in China’s campaign to spread economic development westward into the interior away from the coastal provinces. What really struck me downtown around the Bell Tower was the amount of people out at night and the huge malls, hotels, and buildings.
My dinner that night – a roujiamo肉夹馍, a Xian-style burger. I passed by a KFC and initially thought about it, then changed my mind and went into a Chinese fast-food chain next to it. I bought this beef roujiamo, which is like a flat hamburger with shredded meat. It was quite salty and tasted alright. I had one the following night too.