Archive for September, 2013


Nothing excites an American diplomat like a US public holiday on a day with zero significance to the people and government of the host country. Truly liberating, it is indeed, to be free in the city when everyone else is going about their work routines. Better yet when the holiday falls on a Monday or Friday – three day weekends are of great value when travel is high on one’s list of the wonderful and relatively accessible.
So it was at the beginning of September, when I took advantage of the three day weekend to take my first out of Beijing adventure. An early morning high speed train ride, and six hours later I was in the old city of Xi’an 西安, in the province of Shaanxi 陕西. The development of this quite impressive rail network is a story in itself, of course, but on this trip I was happy to simply enjoy the pleasures of tourism.

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Once you are in Xi’an city, it is more or less obligatory that you make the trip out of town to see the Terra-cotta Soldiers of Emperor Qin Shi Huang of the Qin Dynasty. I was really enjoying the city itself, with the great old town and museums, and wonderful food all over, but it really was worth the trip, despite dealing with the mobs of tourists, the large time commitment, and the pushy vendors selling “tour guides” and mini warrior sculptures. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, after all.IMG_0225

And once you are there, in the hanger-sized building where the excavations have taken place, confronted by that much ancient history all at one time, it is very, very easy to be impressed, and even astonished.





Xi’an city itself, though, was the real joy of the trip. The fact that Shaanxi has wholeheartedly embraced tourism – it is one of the city’s main economies – it is still easy enough to feel like you can break through the glossy surface. And even some of the more touristy places, despite an intention to make it feel like Disneyland (such as the magnificent city wall), a disconnect in terms of implementation that leads to so many frustrations in other parts of life in china means that you can have relatively direct contact with some legitimately ancient pieces of human history.
Xi’an’s ancient city wall has been reconstructed and preserved, and today it is the most complete in all of China. I rented a bike for an hour and rode all the way around its 7 plus kilometer circumference at sunset, watching the mix of old neighborhoods and busy shopping malls exist down in the city both inside and outside the wall.
There is also a great museum dedicated to sculptures and Chinese script carved in stone slabs, next to an ancient university for scholars of Chinese calligraphy.


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More Hutong Ventures

Hutong bike adventure 2

Ancient Fortresses, Bicycles, and “Green China”


西安,Xi’an, is one of the four ancient capitals of China, with over 3,000 years of history. Launch off point to the Terra-cotta Warriors and the tomb of Ji Shi Huang, it has become one of the country’s premier tourist sites, and the recently completed high speed bullet train can zip you in from Beijing in about six hours.

As China’s many emperors seemed to like doing, the rulers based in Xi’an built a massive wall around the city, and today the 7.4 miles of stone is restored and is the most impressive and complete such structures I have ever seen (granted I haven’t visited the Great Wall yet…). You can rent a bicycle and ride the entire circumference, seeing the Old City’s tiled roofs and shiny new shopping centers below.


Somewhere midway around the top of the wall, on the South side, I think, was a little display that seemed to be an “ode to the bicycle” of sorts. The billboards paid homage to the pure ingenuity of the two wheel bike and its importance to the “low-carbon China” of today.

It is often difficult in China to know exactly whether something like this is simply another gimmick for tourists or whether it is a reflection of a civilization that is thoughtfully and deeply aware of the weight of its own history – the former is all too common, but the latter is a very real part of the china experience, though it can often be hidden to foreigners by bad translations and cheesy pictures.

Personally, I choose to believe that this reflects a true reverence for the mighty bicycle, and shows something of the rediscovery of the machine in a somewhat new way by a society that is still in danger of forgetting it in a car and “modernity” obsessed age.