This is the Great Silk Road Trip, so it had to actually start on the Silk Road. Xi’an, formerly Chang’an in its days of glory, was the capital of Tang China and is the eastern terminus / beginning of the Silk Road. Its history and location in the center of China’s interior make Xi’an the ideal beginning to a Silk Road excursion – once your visa is secured.
I left Warren’s apartment in Hong Kong at 06:00 to catch the Shenzhen airport bus at 06:50. The bus was only half full, rendering unneeded my pains to get a ticket the previous night. The border police detained me briefly when entering China, which marked my fourth straight frisking by the authorities and gives me a 1.000 average for staying flagged in the Chinese immigration system. I broke my six-month no-McDonald’s streak when I ate an egg McMuffin for breakfast at the airport. I slept on the plane and during the hour-long bus ride from the airport into Xi’an. Ten hours of transit ended when I finally set my bag down at the Seven Sages Hostel at about 16:00.
A walk around the Muslim Quarter was first on my agenda. It is my favorite memory from Xi’an; the neighborhood itself is interesting and there are plenty of tasty snacks to sample. It is the center of the Hui Muslim ethnic community in Xi’an. These are Han Chinese people who are traditionally Islamic, so many of their cultural practices are more typically Chinese than their other Muslim minority brethren in China. In the Quarter I entered the serene courtyard of a neat Chinese-style mosque, which was not the famous Great Mosque that requires visitors to pay an entry fee. A few men read their Qurans and chatted quietly while I photographed the architecture. The call to prayer squawked from a loudspeaker as I returned to the busy streets. I dined on savory yang rou pao mo (crumbled bread in lamb stew) and I sampled giant versions of “Chinese chips,” which I believe are called humabing. The most memorable Xi’an snack was the huashenggao or peanut cakes. Huashenggao reminded me of peanut butter bars from back home, except much larger and cheaper. I smashed two kilos of the stuff between my teeth in less than five days, which cost only about 30 kuai.
That evening I relaxed at the Seven Sages Hostel and drank tea with two girls from Northern Ireland and Nora from Austria as they watched Juno.
I woke up late the next morning. For nearly two hours I cycled around the old city wall, a less interesting experience than I had expected. The Western gate hosted the end of a “Willpower Walker” race involving a bunch of men in pink shirts. Fifteen hundred years earlier, the same spot was the beginning or end of the merchant journeys connecting the material and economic prosperity of Europe, China and all the lands between. The bike chain broke and took ten minutes off my journey, and I was 20 minutes late returning the bike which everyone rents for 100 minutes. I explained my story to the attendants, who downgraded my time such that I was not fined. So, travelers beware: when renting bicycles to ride on the walls of Xi’an, 100 minutes is not enough time unless you ride at breakneck speed!
It was 13:30 when I finished cycling. I snacked near the wall, then retreated to the hostel to launder clothes and shower. I met Nora and we set out to see the Little Goose Pagoda. Unfortunately, transport is not abundant in Xi’an; we arrived at the pagoda too late to enter. As a consolation we walked to the Muslim Quarter and ate too much. Finding nothing left to do in Xi’an (I had already seen the Terracotta Warriors in Atlanta), I watched Inglourious Basterds and drank more tea before I retired at 1. I left on the K591 to Dunhuang at 10:56 the next morning.
All the photos from Xi’an are here.