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 è¥¿å®‰, in the province of Shaanxi é™•è¥¿. 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.
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.
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.