Exploring Xi’an – the Capital of the Past

Xi’an is where we saw the famous Terra Cotta Army, refreshed our childhood biking memories, and placed an order for halal food at a Chinese restaurant – that too in Arabic… And since Xi’an had so much to offer us, some of us decided to give back to this city by entertaining a large crowd of Chinese spectators at a musical fountain show!

The Train to Xi’an

From our hotel in Beijing, we had to run (each of us with backpacks weighing 15kg) to catch a bus to Beijing West Station for the overnight train to Xi’an.  I wanted to take a few pictures so I looked out the window of our cabin, only to find that the train was moving fast through a pitch dark forest under a pitch dark sky.  I remember wishing I hadn’t seen that.  The setting was just perfect for telling ghost stories and spirit calling.  We didn’t do any of those, but F did tell us some tales that managed to scare us quite a bit (some of us had to accompany each other to go use the washroom outside our cabin).  This fear factor aside, the train was one of the most comfortable ways I traveled on this trip.

Xi’an Favourites

Xi’an was a bustling city with large underground walkways, huge malls, and an efficient transit system.  It’s currently the capital of the Shaanxi province and was once the capital of China for over 1000 years under the rule of four major dynasties.  I expected Xi’an to be a small village… Obviously I had not done my research earlier.  We stayed in city center, right across from the famous Bell Tower.  A KFC and a huge Starbucks near our hotel proved that this area was always buzzing with tourists.

In this post, I’m going to talk about my top 5 experiences in Xi’an.

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#5. Biking on the City Wall

You can rent bicycles at one of the gates of Xi’an’s city wall and bike all over this 12km long wall that travels through all the bustling areas of the city.  It was such a good, scenic 4-hour exercise and we pretty much got to see the whole city. It had been more than a decade since I biked this much in one day and I wondered why I had ever stopped biking!

#4. Visiting the Muslim Quarter

I clearly remember watching a video about Xi’an in my high school “Travel & Tourism” course and being amazed to learn that China actually had a significant local Muslim population.  The video showed the beautiful blend of Islamic and Chinese culture in Xian’s Muslim Quarter and I day-dreamed about visiting it one day.  So you can only imagine how happy I was to be actually strolling in that area…
The Muslim Quarter was only a 15 minute walk from where we lived.  On our first day in this city, we met a little Chinese boy named Mustafa and his hijabi mother and grandma.  In the same area, we purchased water bottles for a special discount from a Chinese Muslim man’s shop.  And the same day, we went to eat at a restaurant where the Chinese owner spoke Arabic.  The Muslim Quarter, therefore, was simply awesome!

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#3. Seeing the Terra Cotta Army

The Terra Cotta army consists of warriors of all ranks, shapes and sizes.  Everything from their facial features, expressions, and hairstyles, to their heights, uniforms, and weapons is different from each another.  And I’m talking about over 8000 life-sized soldiers made out of clay in the era of 200 BC!  I couldn’t believe that so much detail could be put into making these soldiers when they were meant to be buried underground in the first place! Our tour guide told us that the Emperor (who ordered this army to be built) wanted to be immortal so he drank mercury everyday on someone’s advice. Little did he know that he was only gulping down his death… Anyway, I cannot even begin to tell you the history of the Terra Cotta Warriors, but do read up on it if you’re interested.  All I can say is that it is one of the coolest things I have ever seen!

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#2. Praying at the Great Mosque of Xi’an

I got the chance to pray twice at Xi’an’s Great Mosque and it’s something I will never forget. It was amazing to hear an Imam who recited Quranic verses in a slight Chinese accent.  As I listened to him, I thought about how Islam has spilled over so many borders and touched the hearts of people all over the world.  The prayer was just a small part of what bonded me to these Muslims so far away from where I lived.  What I shared with these people was a much larger value system because of which I was in the Mosque, praying behind the Imam at that very moment!

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More information on the mosque here

#1. Falling down at the Musical Fountain Show

Every night, the biggest musical fountain show in all of Asia is performed in the north square of Xian’s Big Wild Goose Pagoda (A Buddhist holy site).  So there we were, watching the show and having a good time among a large crowd.  The fountains danced to loud music playing in the background.  Time and again, someone would dodge their way through the fountains with a goal of getting to the other side of the square without getting wet.  You can see a guy run across at the start of this short clip from a video I made.

It seemed like so much fun so three of us decided to follow suit.  Everyone around started to happily watch, of course, because we were fascinating tourists in China. Holding hands, we managed to run to the opposite side without getting wet.  Now we had to come back to our starting point and this is the part that didn’t go too well.  Hand in hand, we started running once again when the fountains seemed cooperative.

“Okay, let’s goooo!” ordered A, suggesting we go fast so we don’t get soaked by the fountains.
“Slow down!!!” I yelled, wanting to run slow so we don’t fall and break our hips on the super slippery floor.
“Ahhhhhh,” said M, as she descended to the ground and fell in front of a hundred pairs of eyes that were watching us foreigners in so much amazement.  Poor M, holding the hand of a fast runner on one side and a slow one on the other, lost balance as she was running wobbling…

I could hear people starting to laugh and I now balanced at the edge of an important decision: Should I try my best to slow down and come to a stop (which was doable given my slow speed) or should I let go of myself and laugh my heart out at what just happened?  Slowing down could’ve saved me from embarrassing myself in front of the crowd.  Laughing, on the other hand, would cause me to let my muscles loose and head for the slippery floor.  Before I could weigh these options, my laughter broke out and within a second I headed to meet M on the ground.  Now people were really laughing, and I was going crazy sitting on the floor and laughing at myself 😀 I’m sure some people got our videos/pictures.  Thank God YouTube is blocked in China because we probably had a chance of being watched around the country.  “Three hijabis and the musical fountain,” the video would’ve been titled. Wet and cold, we managed to get off the floor and returned to L who had caught this pitiful incident in High Definition quality on her camera.

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I have more to say about the unforgettable time I spent in Xi’an, but I’m going to stop here. Hope you enjoyed these highlights of my five-day stay in Xi’an. This city gets an A from me 🙂

Next up in Travelog: Me in Hong Kong – a Concrete Jungle

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