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Tracing China’s ancient cities

April 9, 2012

On the 24th of March I began a 6-day field trip that would take me to the ancient city of Pingyao in Shanxi province, and Xi’an in Shaanxi province. Shanxi province located in North China and Shaanxi province in Central China, is considered to be one of the cradles of Chinese civilization, with over 13 feudal dynasties that established their capitals there including the Zhou and Tang Dynasty’s, spanning over 1,1000 years. I was excited to be on the road again.

I spent my first two nights in Pingyao, an ancient town surrounded by a city wall now protected by the UNESCO World Heritage. It was one of the most interesting places I’ve ever stayed in. Walking along the wall and looking down at the city, you can somewhat imagine and visualize what the world must have been like when these walls acted as protection for the people of Pingyao. The streets of Pingyao had a very unique feel, a mixture of bazaar like energy and the peace of small village. The central streets were the hubs of activity.

All sorts of shops adorned both sides of the street selling all sorts of handicrafts and trinkets to sculptures and swords of all sizes-for very, very cheap. I bought a very nice crafted wooden cane with a dragon head as its top handle, bargained down from a 100 to 20 RMB. Funnily enough, I ended up carrying the cane everywhere I went from then on (as if I needed anything more to set me apart from the crowd). But, perhaps the best way to get the feel of this tiny ancient town is to rent a bicycle, and pedal your way from the crowded streets to the quieter areas situated close to the wall.

Naturally, I stopped en-route to the smell of some very delicious cooking, the Pingyao special Miantiao (noodles). These noodles were much flatter and wider in size, and were cooked in some very delicious spices. My friends and I also stumbled across a local special alcohol that is stored in earthen pots, and it was some of the tastiest local Chinese alcohol I had tried so far. With sundown, a gradual peace began to settle on the city, and it was only then you began to feel a realization of where, in context with the rest of the world, you really are. There is not enough to do within the city walls for much longer than a couple of days, yet I could have easily spent a week lazily living in this tiny city, safe within the ancient walls. However, 2 days later and I was on the road again, this time on a 12-hour overnight train to Xi’an.

Capital of Shaanxi province, Xi’an is also one of China’s 4 historic capitals with a very unique history. Xi’an was the Eastern end of the Silk route that connected China to parts of Europe and Africa. This made Xi’an a commercial hub and one of the most diverse cities in China. The city began to decline in importance around the mid 1400s, most likely due to the technological shift of trade to the seas than land, yet the foreign influences still remain on the architecture and culture of the city. There are many Pagodas that were built, most famously the Wild Goose Pagoda.

Although, to many of the Chinese, a group of waiguo ren (foreigners) dressed up in traditional Chinese clothes for a touristy picture (yes, we did that – see pic), proved to be far more interesting, as crowds of people began to surround us, rather than the Pagoda. The ancient Islamic root of the city is most prominent in the Muslim quarter, which is one of the liveliest places to visit to feast on the amazing food. I was curious about the politics of religious tolerance and I inquired with one of the Imam’s at the mosque about this. In a distinctly hushed tone he told me the party has generously funded the building of many sections within the mosque, and does to a significant degree leave them to their own devices.

Yet, perhaps the most popular attraction is the Terracotta warriors, on display in a museum on the outskirts of Xian. They are a terracotta army of 8,000 soldiers, including chariots and horses, built in 210 BC to protect the emperor Qin Shi Huang in his after life, as was the practice at that time. The soldiers were actually destroyed when the roof collapsed during an invasion, only to be found in 1974 by a group of farmers. Since then a great deal of effort and money has been spent to attempt to re-build the destroyed warriors into their former glory. At the first sight, you can’t help but stare in awe, and the attention to detail to each figure is incredible. There are 3 different sections, each representing different sections of the army.

The Chinese civilization is tremendous; full of culture, and until the 15th century was one of the most advanced civilizations in the world, leaving behind an amazing array of remnants from the past. Fast forward to present day, China is on the cusp of its former glory. Many label China’s growth over the last two decades as the rise and emergence of China. The Chinese leadership sees it as the re-emergence of China, to where it genuinely belongs. Shaanxi and Shanxi province exemplify this belief.

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