China is full of massive cities that very few people have ever heard of. Here’s a city of four million which most Chinese probably don’t know about. Hanzhong, not Hangzhou, is in Shaanxi province, and is in dire need of development and recognition, according to its head of foreign affairs. It has two KFCs but no McDonald’s or Starbucks, not exactly a bad thing. It has a few noteworthy attributes, such as a temple dedicated to and the tomb of the man who refined the paper-making process and a drinking culture “that enourages drunkeness.” Living standards are increasing and real estate is doing well. Seems like Hanzhong’s future is bright.
In the exact center of Xian is a magnificent giant Chinese pavilion atop a stone base that forms a roundabout intersection around which traffic goes. At night, this tower is lit up and it forms a particular picturesque sight from every corner of the intersection. This is Xian’s old Bell Tower, a three-storey Chinese tower with multiple wooden roofs with each corner curving gently upwards. The Bell Tower was built over 600 years ago in 1384 during the Ming Dynasty, and is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, in China. There’s an interesting legend behind the tower’s construction, that it was built to repel the power of mythical dragons to protect the city from earthquakes, which were believed to be caused by dragons. After it was built, earthquakes never occurred again. The Bell Tower had a utilitarian use though. Its giant bell was sounded at dawn every day, while a giant drum in the Drum Tower was sounded to mark the sunset.
To visit it, you have to go underground and find the Bell Tower ticket office. The area underneath this specific intersection is a busy set of corridors that lead to street exits, department stores, and the subway station. After you buy the ticket underground, you ascent the stairs to the base of the Bell Tower where you are at street level and can see traffic speeding around you, with a steel fence preventing people from walking onto the road of course. Most of the building is wooden, and the ceilings feature nicely colored patterns and elaborate eaves. There’s a huge bell on the outer level and inside, there are scrolls and a stage where bell performances took place daily.
Not far from the Bell Tower is the Drum Tower. Just as ancient (built four years earlier in 1380) and esteemed as the Bell Tower, the Drum Tower is more rectangular and longer. It’s located a little further off on the NW corner of the intersection, roughly in front of the Muslim Quarter.
While the Bell Tower has the more impressive location, I found the Drum Tower to be more interesting since there’s more to see. It features giant drums all around its entrance while inside is a drum museum featuring all kinds of weird and fascinating drums. I was lucky enough to catch a free performance there, which happens several times every day. A troupe of young drummers played Chinese drums for about 20 minutes, with at least one solo.
This was the morning before my afternoon flight back to Taipei, but I managed to visit the Grand Mosque in the Muslim quarter after I left the Drum Tower. With this post, I’ve finally concluded writing about my Xian-Huashan-Luoyang trip last year and I’m quite relieved.
Straight ahead, at the end of the street is a guard tower of the City Wall which surrounds the entire Xian city center.
The Drum Tower has a collection of diverse drums inside.
View from ground level at the base of the Bell Tower. I raised the camera over the steel fence to take this pic.
One of Xian’s major attractions is its Muslim Quarter, a neighborhood and shopping district where most of Xian’s Muslim Hui live ((hence the place’s Chinese name 回民街 Hui MinJie, Hui people’s street), a vivid example of the city’s historical heritage and its prime location as the starting point of the Silk Road leading to Central Asia. The Hui are Han Chinese (possibly with Central Asian and Middle Eastern ancestry) who are Muslims, rather than a distinct ethnicity like the Uighurs. They’ve been living in Xian for over 1,500 years as their ancestors settled down here as traders.
The area is filled with restaurants, stores, and food stalls selling all kinds of delicacies like meat kebabs, roujiamos (Chinese type of hamburger), and Xinjiang naan bread. I visited this place twice, once at night and once on Saturday morning, and both times it was packed full with visitors, many of whom are Chinese. At night, the streets were nicely lit up, as many Chinese tourist sites are, and the main streets and lanes were full of people. I bought a cool Xian city map that was filled with attractions drawn onto it. I also bought a few mini-terracotta keychains from a vendor, who nicely explained each one, but wasn’t satisfied when I only bought several and desperately screamed, which was a little jarring.
Besides the food and shopping, one of the main sights is the Great Mosque (Da Qingzhensi), the largest mosque in the area and built in the year 742. What is unique about it is that it’s a mosque built in the shape and style of traditional Chinese architecture. There’re no tipped onion-shaped domes or minarets here, like what regular mosques have. The main prayer hall resembles a Chinese temple, albeit with Arabic writing. There are even stone steles with Arabic (and Chinese). Unlike what the name suggest, the mosque isn’t that big, but it and its surrounding buildings and gardens are well worth a look. Frankly I didn’t think it was possible to build a mosque in traditional Chinese architecture, just like you won’t see a church built in Chinese style. There’s a nice peaceful atmosphere inside that is completely at odds with the vast commercial activity outside.
The Great Mosque’s prayer hall, where services are held.
The pavilion in the main garden in the Grand Mosque complex.
Covered shopping lane right outside the Grand Mosque, with a cute kid riding around.
Naan bread for sale, and one friendly and one oblivious clerk.
These items seems more Tibetan or Yunnannese than Hui or Xinjiang.
Bought a naan bread from these guys and girl. The guy in the middle seems like a bit of a smartass, but he actually spoke a little English to me, after I was confused by something he said.
Stone stele with Arabic writing.
Shopping lane right next to the Grand Mosque, whose outer wall is at left.
On my Xian trip, later that day after we’d gone to see the terracotta warriors, my Cantonese travel buddy and I went to the Tang Paradise park (Da Tang Furong Yuan 大唐芙蓉园). It’s a large, scenic, and exquisite theme park that recreates Xian’s glorious Tang times, replete with a palace, gardens, pavilions, surrounding an actual lake, with performances as well. Despite initially thinking it’d be kind of tacky, it was actually quite nice. The palace had colored murals filled with Tang Dynasty court scenes, and there was a music hall on the second floor, which actually hosted none other than German leader Angela Merkel and then-Premier Wen Jiaobao. Tang Paradise is near the Big Goose Pagoda, and outside the walled city center.
Around the grounds, there were various complexes and pavilions, and statues of ancient Chinese objects as well as a “self-cooled pavilion” cooled by water from an actual waterwheel. One of the more interesting exhibitions was statues depicting Chinese stories and sayings, like making a needle out of stick, a legend of Tang poet Li Bai that illustrates how if you work hard, you can achieve the impossible’ and why a foolish person would be called wooden cock (in ancient times, cockfighting was popular among the nobility, and commoners who couldn’t afford cocks, would imitate the wealthy by making wooden cocks). We also saw a short show with Chinese acrobats, who did the usual tricks like tumbling and balancing objects with their feet while lying down. A female acrobat took it to a new level, balancing a pole with her feet with two male acrobats hanging on each side.
At night, the lake, the palace, and the pavilions surrounding the lake made for a really lovely scene. The main reason we were coming here though was to see the world’s largest water movie, a short film projected and shown over the lake with lasers and fireworks.
Unfortunately the water movie turned out to be a cartoonish show with fighting gods, demons and even dogs borrowed from Chinese legends. We left before it was completed and by that time, it was past 8. It was impossible getting a taxi as every single one that drove by was full (which I was kind of miffed about), so we went to a restaurant by the guy’s hostel. Afterwards we said our final goodbye and I took the bus to the subway.
The water show. It got progressively ridiculous as it went on.
A mural inside the palace. It’s seems to be a Central Asian or Indian dancer entertaining Chinese officers at a foreign court.
Ms. Merkel and Mr. Wen enjoyed themselves at a show here.
I woke up relatively early the next day on Huashan at about 6. I got up to just see the sun rise up through my dorm window but stupidly, was too lazy to take much photos. I went back to sleep a bit, but by 7.30 I was on my way out. I first climbed to the hilltop above the hotel, the real North Peak. There was a platform on the top where you could see a magnificent view of the rest of Huashan as well as the surrounding mountains and in the opposite direction, the city (Huayi) in the plains north of Huashan. I then set off towards Huashan, passing through the hotel courtyard which had a shrine. At the side futher down, the cable cars were already in motion, this being 8 am, a clear testament how industrious Chinese are and how seriously they take tourism, even at such a holy site as Huashan. The weather was brilliant on this new day. The sky was clear blue, a complete difference from the previous day which had been mostly gray and overcast. I was a little disappointed that there were to be no low cloud layers below the mountain, which I’d looked forward to from pictures of Huashan and Huangshan. There were hikers all around, despite it being morning, as well as porters carrying their heavy loads up the steep stairs. I headed to East Peak, the last major peak that I hadn’t gone to the previous day. Passing Gold Lock Pass, I turned left instead of right, and soon I reached a forested area. I climbed up to a long rocky ledge which somehow was East Peak. Unlike South, North, and West Peaks, there was no sign signifying this was East Peak. I soon came upon a hostel and temple, and further down I saw the distinct chess pavilion, which I recognized from photos I’d seen online, on a narrow ledge that was below. I’d wanted to go there, but I only realized at that point the only way to go there was through a risky climb down the cliff and across a narrow ledge. This was the Sparrow Hawk Steps, one of the two most dangerous points on Huashan, and you could only access it by paying 30RMB and using a harness and rope. I thought about it, but decided I’d rather just enjoy the mountain without risking my life. The other most dangerous point was the notorious Cliffside Plank Walk, which you can see on videos on Youtube, located near South Peak. Apparently the “walk” used to, literally, be walking along the cliff on a narrow wooden path while clinging on to iron chains against the cliff wall. Only one person could walk along this path, which had a cliff wall on one side and an open air and a 2,000m+ drop on the other. You can see why this is considered the most dangerous hike in the world by some people. Now, the authorities have ensured people can only do this walk with harnesses and pay a 30RMB fee, as with the previous precarious path. If people are going to risk their lives, better to make it safer and make a little money at the same time. A smart concept. Getting to the cliff walk was a little adventure too. You first pass through a small cavern before emerging onto a narrow path where only a metal chain attached to posts preventing you from falling off the cliff. If you want to actually do the cliff walk, you’d have to pass a gate, put on your harness and then climb down the cliff until you reached the cliff walk path. In betwen South Peak and East Peak, I went onto Central Peak, which was a shorter summit that was completed surrounded and in between the two other peaks. There were two abandoned buildings on it, otherwise there wasn’t much to see. I’d bumped into the Cantonese couple from my dorm while I was admiring the Chess pavilion on East Peak, and then again when I was heading down from South Peak. This second time, we were pretty happy to see each other again as we all knew it was the last time we’d meet. I reached my hostel on time to check out and take the cable car down by 3.00. I squeezed into the cable car with a family from Sichuan, which included a young lady in a nice short black dress which was absolutely the right kind of attire for visiting a holy mountain. I know they’re from Sichuan because of their language, which I’d asked them to be certain. I then took the shuttle bus to the visitor center, where I tried to locate the taxis outside. After about 5 minutes, screw it, I said, and called my driver from the previous day, Mr. Bao, who sped up the driveway because I was short on time. While taking me to Huashan high-speed rail station, I mentioned I worked in Taiwan. Mr. Bao reacted pleasantly to this, and told me he often read Taiwan news on the Internet. It’s censored in China so he’d have to “jump” the gov’t firewall (which is used in China to restrict Internet access to sensitive websites and content). We spoke a bit about democracy and the lack of it in China. We parted amiably and I got onto my train to Luoyang on time, where I was to get a pleasant shock onboard. Sign about the Cliff Walk. Apparently you can get your photo taken but by what I’m not sure since I didn’t go on it. The people are all wearing harnesses, which is basically the only thing keeping them from plunging thousands of feet into the valley below. Fir forest on the way to East Peak. A laborer carries a heavy load up this near-vertical staircase using just one hand to hold on, while a cleaner (guy in red) sweeps below. The cleaner then went up the staircase as well to sweep every step, whilst holding the dustpan at the same time! In other words, he walked up this staircase without holding on to anything.
Shrine that was above the North Peak hotel where I stayed in.
Here’re more photos from my first day and night on Huashan ( 华山), one of China’s five great sacred mountains. It holds a special place in Chinese history as a place of worship for Taoists and Buddhists, so much so that even emperors came to pay their respects though presumably they did not actually climb to the top. There are temples and shrines scattered on the top, and on the way up.
The popular East Peak, where hikers often overnight at or hike in the night to watch the sunrise. This view is from the Immortal Palm Cliff.
The West Peak, where I watched the sunset from.
South Peak, the highest point on Huashan at 2,154 meters.
Sunset from West Peak.
At West Peak.
The path to West Peak. It’s a precarious walk since those rails are the only thing between you and a quick fall over the edge, but the trail is not as slippery as it seems.
Small temple near West Peak.
Pine forest atop Huashan.
The sky turns dark as I descend.
This is West Peak as seen from Immortal Palm Cliff in the evening. It’s the exact same view in the first photo.
This is at the edge of the path to West Peak.
West Peak is right at the top; I cut my hand on that treacherous steel chain as I was climbing down the steps. It was a small cut but it kept bleeding for a long time. I was even a little fearful I might have gotten tetanus.
Even on a holy mountaintop late in the afternoon, you’ll see construction going on. I encountered this as I went up South Peak.
The rest of Huashan, including the distinctive West Peak in the far right, as seen from the side of the hotel on North Peak.
Huashan is one of China’s most historic and symbolic mountains, being one of the five “Great Mountains.” It also has a reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous mountains, which you can easily find out by doing a Google search.
In reality, this is a bit of an exaggeration which I’ll point out later. I found Huashan to be really spectacular and a great mountain to hike. The views were great, the paths were challenging but easy to keep on, and the atmosphere was pleasant. There was very little danger at any point, other than going up near-vertical steps and foolishly slicing my thumb while climbing down a ladder alongside a boulder on East Peak. I spent basically one whole day – two half-days and one night – on Huashan, which is close to Xian and also in Shaanxi Province, staying the night in the North Peak “hotel”. It really was the highlight of my Xian-Huashan-Luoyang trip and yet I’d never planned to come to Huashan.
I’d only heard of Huashan a year ago, and at first, I thought it was a misspelling of Huangshan. Then I looked up Huashan and found several Youtube videos showing why Huashan is the most dangerous hike in the world. In the videos, people were walking along a sheer cliffwall on an extremely narrow walkway while clinging on to ropes, facing a sheer drop of over 2,000 meters. This was unbelievable and it didn’t look appealing in any way. The prominent bare rocky appearance and the sparse vegetation of the mountain contrasted sharply with the greeness of Huangshan, China’s most famous mountain, which is featured in many fine paintings and drawings. Yet last September, when I was set to visit Xian, I did a quick check on Huashan and seeing that it was only half an hour away by high-speed train (and just two hours by bus), I thought, why not. I wasn’t that interested in Huashan, but it was a famous site and so close to Xian. In the end, I’m very, very glad I did. It’s not the first time that I went somewhere I wasn’t particularly keen but ended up enjoying it a lot; South Africa being the biggest example.
I set out in a rush on a Monday morning for Xian North station, the high-speed station which is also the northernmost subway station on Xian subway’s line two. The day before, I had bought a high-speed ticket to Huashan. It was mightily convenient getting it since the train ticket office was literally minutes away from my hotel. From my trip to Shanghai in 2011, I know high-speed train tickets can be bought from ticketselling offices in neighborhoods and it was no different here or in Luoyang later on. The ticket office was surprising casual; an enclosed booth at the entrance in the narrow hallway of a building. Of course, that was no problem as it saved me the trouble of having to go all the way to Xian North station to buy it (it’s best to buy high-speed tickets at least one day before so I didn’t want to buy the ticket right before I wanted to leave).
I was actually running late since I had spent a little too much time at the supermarket getting supplies beforehand and I ended up missing my train by just a few minutes. I had been foolish in underestimating the time to get to Xian North from my subway station(9 stops away). This wasn’t helped by the fact that at the Xian North subway station, you have to go upstairs and exit at one door and enter at another door to get to the high-speed train platform. I almost barged through the security check at the entrance but the staff told me I had missed the train and to go change my ticket. This entailed getting out and going into another hall next door. I lined up, sheepishly told the ticketseller I had missed my train and needed the next one, and just like that, I got a new ticket. I also got a RMB20 refund since the next train was slower and hence cheaper (China has two types of high-speed trains). So basically, I was late but I ended up saving money. It was some good luck I really didn’t deserve.
The train ride was short and uneventful, taking less than an hour. Outside, the weather was overcast so I couldn’t see much. When I got out at Huashan North station, which was actually in Huayi City (the town right below Huashan), I was immediately approached by a cab driver. I steeled myself, but he seemed a decent guy and he offered a decent price – 20 RMB- to get to the Huashan Tourism Center, where visitors must pay the entrance fee. Then he suggested I go back to the station to buy my ticket for my onwards journey. As I had actually forgotten, I was grateful for his suggestion and this basically swayed me into accepting his offer. I bought my ticket for Luoyang, then walked with him to his unmarked car, basically an unlicensed taxi. Mr. Bao was all the way from Hangzhou, Zhejiang, but had come to Huayi to work. I thought it was interesting since Huayi and Hangzhou were worlds apart, but didn’t press him. Along the way, I noticed how wide and empty the street we were on was. On both sides of this boulevard were small apartment buildings and hotels; nothing really special. When we neared the Tourism Center, a giant lantern loomed in the middle of a roundabout. It was a “baoliangdang”, a light used by a person in a legend connected with Huashan, he told me.
I soon found out visiting Huashan was costly. I had to pay an entrance fee, the 2-way cable car ticket, and for a 2-way shuttle from the Tourism Center to the cable car station at the foot of Huashan. I wasn’t going to hike up to Huashan from the ground because I was carrying one small luggage plus I wanted to save my energy for the top peaks. All around me were tour groups and I was basically the only individual traveler. On the way to Huashan in the shuttle minibus, I overheard some older Cantonese men wondering whether I was Korean or from the North! I would have probably shocked them if I had spoken to them in Cantonese, but I was a bit tired and not in a mood to talk to strangers. As it got closer to Huashan, the minibus drove up winding roads with steep rocky slopes on both sides. I disembarked at the cable car ground station and got into the small cable car, which swiftly moved up. It was overcast and slightly raining outside, but I could still look out and see the mountain gradually become larger and more real as we climbed higher. It was a quick trip to the top, less than 10 minutes, and the view when I got out was amazing. The rocky peaks all around seemed beautiful, in contrast to how it looked in photos online. “Waaa, mo de ding! (Wow, nothing can beat this)” exclaimed a Cantonese woman about the view and I agreed.
I first had to get to the hotel to check in and leave my luggage. I walked up a steep flight of stairs and saw the hotel was right next to it, but there wasn’t any opening along the stairs to get to the hotel. I kept walking up, but somehow I lost sight of the building and ended up on a viewing area with some huge boulders- I know it sounds silly, but that’s what happened. I quickly asked a tour guide who pointed me in the right direction and I got to the hotel “lobby”. The staff showed me the prices and I almost did a double take inside. A double room was almost RMB700! I chose to bunk in a 16-bed dorm room, which was the cheapest, but still cost the same as I’d paid for my 2-bed hotel room in Xian. Of course, given the lack of choices on the mountaintop, it should have been obvious that prices would not be cheap. But a website I’d visited had shown prices were cheaper. On the other hand, it wasn’t that big a deal since none of the rooms had toilets, though the double room had running water.
The toilets for the entire hotel were outside and had no running water and weren’t flushable. I was taken to my room, which was filled with 8 bunk beds and empty. The view from the window was really good. I rearranged my stuff, took my luggage back to the front desk and then set out to hike. It was now about two o’clock; I hadn’t eaten lunch but I wasn’t planning to anyways.
This is the hotel I stayed in on North Peak. The cable car station is the white hut on the lower right.
Huashan has five peaks – North, South, West, East, and Central. The peaks are arranged like a four-point star with Central peak being in the middle. The shape vaguely resembles a flower, which might have led to its name (although Hua’s character used in Huashan is different from that of flower). North Peak is the shortest peak, and connects to the other peaks via a long and steep staircase- Dragon Ridge (canglong ling). This staircase was featured in the new Karate Kid (set in China) movie, when Jackie Chan takes the kid to a mountaintop to understand the essence of kungfu. The scene is mainly set in Wudangshan in Hubei province, which includes historic temples and a historic kungfu center where monks train at (including the snake lady), but the mountain staircase as well as a shot of a giant gray mountain are clearly Huashan.
Along the way, there were several stairs and trails going up, including a staircase cut into the rock that was almost vertical. I saw porters carrying loads slowly up the stairs across the mountain, including the vertical one. They carried bricks, cement, and food items on bundles slung across their back, that were most certainly at least 50 pounds. They would stop to rest briefly and passersby would give them water or juice boxes. It’s sights like these that show that kindness is still present in China, especially in subtle ways that many people and media probably aren’t aware of. Similarly the sight of these porters carrying heavy loads up stairs that were several stories high really brought home the fact that some Chinese do have it tough, not to mention resilient and hardworking.
Besides the porters, there was another common sight everywhere on Huashan. Hundreds of locks with flowing red ribbons with messages on them were attached to ropes slung across stairs and even trees. People bought these locks to lock them onto these ropes forever to bring them luck in romance, work, and even studies. They were being sold by vendors all over the mountain. I didn’t buy one though. Commercialism was in full force as photographers at vantage points and souvenir booths were at a lot of places. Besides vendors, Huashan was dotted with buildings. There were several hostels, especially at each peak, along with small temples and shrines. The hostels and food and souvenir booths were all manned by uniformed park employees, which was interesting. I found this highly reassuring as I felt that if something happened or I got lost, I could at least ask these guys for help.
After climbing up, I reached Jin Suo Guan (Gold Lock Pass), the gateway to all the other peaks. There was a giant gold lock here; and hundreds of locks tied along the stair railings, festively wrapped up in red ribbons. The path was also framed by giant boulders, some which had Chinese sayings inscribed onto them, and precariously perched pine trees atop some of these very boulders. A few small temples and cave shrines appeared here and there as well.
This is right above Golden Lock Pass (Jin Suo Guan).
I hiked towards the west, but I first went to South Peak and then West Peak, where I caught the sunset. The giant rocks gradually gave way to forest of towering pine trees in this part, a few of whom were hundreds of years old which little signs affixed to them said. One ancient tree, “Da Jiangguan”- the big general- was 1000 years old.
Climbing onto West Peak, I passed a hostel with Michael Jackson playing loudly. West Peak was nice, though I got a nasty little gash below my thumb while climbing down a ladder. It was a small cut but it couldn’t stop bleeding for a while. Anyways, bleeding hand aside, it was a peaceful experience watching the sun set vividly as a bright orange circle gradually disappearing into a dark purple horizon under a blue and yellow sky. West Peak faced towards some shorter mountains, and there was a cable car line under construction a little lower down. There were a few dozen hikers, all Chinese, most of whom seemed to be enjoying themselves. I got asked by people to take a few pics of them, and in return people took my pic for me.
I had to hurry back to my hotel after seeing the sunset as the sky became dark and I didn’t want to be lost on the mountain. As I reached the final stretch, the lights were gradually turned on along the path. Incredibly I met people who were hiking up. They were going to Eastern Peak to spend the night so they could wake up and watch the sunrise. I even had a few pleasant chats with people who asked me for directions and where I’d gone. I headed down part of the final stretch in near darkness since the lights weren’t turned on yet, but I saw the reassuring sight of the hotel in the distance ahead perched on North Peak, with a string of lights illuminating the path leading to it.
When I entered my room, there was a middle-aged Cantonese couple occupying one of the beds, and we talked for a short while. They had hiked up from the bottom of the mountain to the hotel, which took 5 hours, but for them, it was nothing. They would hike the rest of the peaks the next day. I thought that it’d only be the 3 of us in the room, when all of a sudden, a bunch of young Chinese burst in, with the excited chatter of a girl being the most prominent. She chose the bed next to me, and it turned out she was from Shanghai and had hiked up the mountain as well, with her friends. Lord, it seemed like I was a softy for taking the cable car. It was nice to know that there were young Chinese who’d come all the way to Huashan and take the strenuous hike up to the top. Even more admirable, these people were going to hike to East Peak the next morning to see the sunrise. They would later get up at 3 am to hike the two hours in darkness to East Peak from the hotel. It was hard getting to sleep and inexplicably my stomach started growling, so I had to get out and eat a granola bar. I went on a stairwell above the hotel and enjoyed the view of the nearby mountain in the darkness. Eventually, I went back in later and managed to sleep.
A map of Huashan from Jin Suo Guan onwards. Jin Suo Guan is the gateway to the rest of Huashan, which includes the East, Central, South and West Peaks.
A neighboring mountain, one of the first sights I saw as soon as I arrived at Huashan’s North Peak.
The historic Chinese city of Xian is most famous for the terracotta warriors, which the above picture shows. But as one of China’s four greatest capitals, it boasts many other major historical sites that are well worth visiting as well. I went to three of these places the day after I arrived, including a world-class museum and a massive city wall that completely surrounds the city center.
On my second day, I woke up to a completely grey outside. This was the enormous grey haze that had swept in from the North, having enveloped Beijing for days. Fog or not, I had a whole day to check out Xian so I headed out to the Shaanxi Historical Museum and Big Goose Pagoda. These two places are located near each other which made it really convenient to fit into my travel itinerary; likewise the Small Goose Pagoda and Xian Museum are near each other. These two places are located further south, and outside the City Wall which surrounds downtown Xian and the Bell and Drum Towers. I took the subway at Beidajie and got out 5 stops later at Xiaozai station. The intersection was crowned with a four-way pedestrian overpass and after crossing that, I reached the museum in about 10 minutes. I saw to my horror a long line stretching out of the museum onto the streetwalk outside, which easily had several hundred people. However I learned these were the people lining up for the free tickets, and that I could instead buy a ticket for R20 which would also let me visit a special exhibit. Well, it was a quick decision of course. I quickly bought that ticket literally in a minute because this line was just a handful of people.
The museum was a large traditional Chinese pavilion topped by two
layers of traditional roofs with curved tiles. The museum proper was fronted by an archway and a courtyard. The building didn’t look very new and reminded me of the Nanjing Museum, which I visited last year. Entering the museum, one is greeted by an impressively large lion statue. The museum was packed with people which I found out as soon as I stepped into one of the galleries. There was a huge map of Shaanxi near the entrance and as I overheard a father showing his young son the map “Let dad show you where us Shaanxi people …”, I felt a little envious of them. Sure, my ancestral provinces have a lot of history too but Shaanxi really went back thousands of years ago. I was struck by the exhibits and the immense history on display. I enjoy museums a lot, especially Chinese ones, but what made this one special was that basically everything on display, spanning from hundreds to two thousand years ago, was from this area. Xian didn’t just exist for over a thousand years; it was a major city for over a thousand years. For a long time, Xian was really the center of the Chinese civilization. The exhibits ranged from a grotto of giant Buddha statues, to 2,700-year-old tripod vessels and bells going back to the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC). There was a nice collection of the famous Tang triple-glazed pottery horses and camels (usually seen in distinctive green, yellow, and brown), of course, but the best exhibit of the museum has to be the terra cotta warriors and horses, arrayed in a large room within touching distance of visitors. The special exhibit that my paid ticket entitled me to was in the basement, one of two actually. The second one required a separate ticket which I didn’t bother buying. The special exhibition wasn’t that interesting, but it was also ancient. It was a treasure trove of gold, silver, precious stones and utensils that had been dug up in a village called Hejiacun near Xian in 1970.
The “funerary guards of honor” buried with a Ming prince, top, and a Northern Song dynasty (960-1127) Buddhist grotto which was excavated from a mountain, above.
Western Han Dynasty (206 BC to 8 AD) funeral pottery figures, top, and real terracotta figures and horses within touching distance.
After I was finished with the museum, I walked to the Big Goose Pagoda which was about 20 minutes away. Built during the Tang dynasty in 652 AD (over 1350 years ago), its stands seven stories high and its simple gray facade stands out as the only tall structure in that area. I had to cross an overhead bridge which gave me a good view of the construction going on all around, with much of the new buildings shopping centers and restaurants. I passed a large water fountain which faced the back of the pagoda, and then had to walk all the way around to the front since that was where obviously the entrance was. Along the way there were lots of visitors walking around, kids playing, and there were statues of ancient Chinese indulging in activities like wrestling. The weather was still very bad but the atmosphere was actually good. In front of the Big Goose Pagoda is a statue of Xuanzhang, the Buddhist monk traveler who journeyed all the way along the Silk Road to India and returned with sacred Buddhist texts and figurines which were placed in this pagoda. The grounds of the pagoda are actually bigger than they seem. There were even two small drum and bell towers, located near the entrance inside. Temple buildings and halls line the sides of the compound while the pagoda looms over everything from the back.
The Big Goose Pagoda with the statue of the Buddhist traveler-monk Xuanzhang in front, top, and a chui tang (blown candy) vendor doing his thing on the street outside the Shaanxi Museum.
I went into the pagoda, which required paying another entrance fee, and walked up the wooden steps to the top. It wasn’t very spacious inside, with basically each floor arranged in square cross, with a centre space and small hallways leading windows at all four points. I managed to catch a water fountain show from on top, at the same fountain I had passed earlier. This would have been a good vantage point to look out over Xian, but the air was still depressingly grey and it wouldn’t improve at all that day. The pagoda’s interior was a little disappointing but the grounds were quite pleasant and there was a nice, calm atmosphere inside that was a big contrast to the bustling construction and crowds outside. There were some nicely tended lawns and gardens with trees and a small pagoda forest consisting of 15-feet-high stone pagodas.
My next destination was the City Wall, which is the largest such wall in China and probably the world. I walked back to Xiaozhai station and got off three stops north at Yongninmen station, where the South (Yongning) Gate was. I walked to the entrance, crossing a bridge over a small moat. I bought a ticket and walked inside, where there was an open courtyard surrounded by walls over 30-feet high tall, with guard pavilion several storeys high on two sides of the walls. At this gate, there was a barbican (fortified gateway) and an arrow tower. When I got up onto the wall proper, it was as wide and large as info and pictures on the web showed. The wall was wide enough for two cars to drive across side by side and long enough to stretch into the horizon. Travel writers and travelers aren’t joking when they say it takes about four hours to walk the entire wall.
I walked to the east, passing a couple of smaller gates. On the left, there was a neighborhood of well-maintained old houses. On closer inspection, several bars and hostels were in these houses. This was part of an old town, which I had never heard of before, likely near or inside Shiyuanman Street. At fixed distances, there were two-storey watch towers. One housed a tourism office, where I got a free English map, while others housed souvenir stores and even a bicycle exhibition. There were a good number of people, though I wouldn’t say it was too much. A fair amount of people whizzed past on bikes, which you could rent, including even tandem bikes (ones where two or more people sit on and pedal in unison) and these people seemed to be having a great time. If it wasn’t for the bad air, I would have wanted to bike. Along the way, signs described the history behind the surrounding neighborhoods where princes or court officials lived. Interestingly, and ironically given the recent Diaoyutai anti-Japanese protests, I saw two signs commemorating Japanese scholars who had lived in Xian, including Abe Nakamaro/Chao Heng (698-770) who served the Tang in several administrative positions!
Inside the entrance to South Gate where the imposing Arrow Tower greets you, top, and part of the park that’s situated right outside the city wall.
It took about half an hour to walk from the South Gate (which was the middle of the south portion of the wall) to the SouthEast corner, then another half an hour to the Eastern Changle Gate, where just like at South Gate, two massive pavilions, the “zhalou” and the “jianlou” (Arrow Tower) overlooked the gate entrance. A selection of ancient siege weapons like cannons and catapults stood at one side of the wall, while tour buses filled the courtyard below. The Arrow Tower housed an exhibition of photos of Xian in the past century. At this point it was already almost 5.30 and I decided to turn back. I had actually wanted to turn back earlier, since the haze was terrible, but I wanted to stay late enough to see the night lights turn on on the wall. It was funny, the haze, since it was grey and obscured your views of the distance on all sides, but in the immediate vicinity, the view was clear enough. It started to get dark but it wasn’t until about 6.30 that the lantern lights that lined the sides of the wall were turned on. It was a lovely sight, especially the watch towers and gate buildings which were all lit up in bright yellow and blue lights. When I left the City Wall, there were only a handful of people around and the entrance through which I had entered was closed. I exited the North entrance of the South Gate with the lit-up Arrow tower a beautiful sight looking back. This nice feeling gave way to some fear because in front of the curb was a roundabout. To reach the street ahead required crossing the roundabout and I did this quickly but had to stop before I could cross the street to get to the sidewalk. I almost got hit by a car and luckily I spotted other people crossing the other side, so I ran across to them and crossed with them. I walked on the street heading directly north to the Bell Tower and it was awfully busy. The sidewalks were filled with vendors selling clothing, food, and accessories, and passsersby. When I reached the Bell Tower, I took the subway back to my hotel and bought biangbiang noodles (thick spicy noodles that were a Xian trademark dish) and a roujiamo at a Chinese fast food chain I had went to the night before. I’d spent the whole day walking and it was an intense relief to return to my hotel. The only bad thing was getting two calls late at night from women offering massages, who when I refused, stressed they were beauties (我們是美女, ah!). It’s ok, I said, I don’t want. I wanted none of this and plus, I had to get up early the next day to get to Huashan.
A neighborhood of renovated ancient houses lay just inside the South Gate, to the West.
Arrow tower at the East Changle Gate.
A map showing Xuanzhang’s travels along the Silk Road to India, top, and a view from inside the Big Goose Pagoda of the entrance, which is in the middle. The top half of this picture shows the amount of heavy development which are mostly restaurants, stores, and hotels.
I took another trip to China last month. This trip was to the cradle of Chinese civilization, where the earliest Chinese settlements and dynasties started. This area is known as the Yellow River Basin, as the Yellow River (China’s second mighty river after the Yangtze) passes through it. Most of China’s earliest kingdoms and dynasties started here, including the Qin Dynasty, from which China got its name from, and the Han Dynasty, from which ethnic Chinese are named after. After going to Beijing earlier this year, it was fitting to now be going to Xian, another of China’s great capitals and arguably its second famous. Xian has the world-famous terracotta warriors and it was the capital for most of the great Tang dynasty (618-907 AD). Besides Xian, I also went to Huashan, one of China’s holy mountains, and Luoyang, which was in neighboring Henan province. Luoyang is also a former capital, one of China’s four ancient great capitals, though probably the least well-known (Beijing and the charming southern city of Nanjing round out this prestigious quartet).
A is Xian, B is Huashan, and C is Luoyang. This area, especially Henan province, is basically the cradle of Chinese civilization. As you can see, Shanghai is to the southeast and Beijing is to the northeast.
It was the first time I was going to Xian or the Yellow River region in general, and ironically it was a region which I didn’t have much interest in before. Despite all the great history, I thought this region, including Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan and Gansu provinces, was old, dusty, and a far cry from its past glories, especially as the center of Chinese civilization slowly but gradually shifted eastwards to the Yangtze River Delta to Nanjing and Hangzhou, and northwards to Beijing. Henan province has at least four former ancient capitals but you’d be hardpressed to read any recent positive news about it. I turned out to be completely wrong, which isn’t the first time it has happened.
This was a completely solo trip which made it a bit more challenging. Initially I was going with my mother, but a medical emergency with a relative forced her to stay behind. Anyways, all this just meant that this was a great opportunity to see new sights, to challenge myself, and to test my faith in China and its people.