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April 2006

This is my next to the last day in Xian. It’s Sunday, my guide has returned to her family for a few days of visiting relatives so I’m on my own. Wen Feng a part-time guide and full-time internet marketer has been showing me around Xian and its surroundings.

The Central Committee has greatly increased the budget for Xian, perhaps as part of a program to increase Terracotta Warrior tourism. Most noticeably is the fleet of new city buses.

Three of the four main boulevards have major construction projects in progress. There are huge shopping malls recently opened or under construction. This may not sound like a good thing but it is. All the new construction is using traditional Chinese style architecture. What was torn down was the more boring utilitarian proletarian style. Xian is returning to its roots.

Sights about town

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and Drum Towers


Drum Tower and the McImperial Restaurant

I’m staying in the center of the city, just across from the Bell Tower. There are four main roads radiating from the Bell Tower which sits in the middle of a roundabout, appropriately named – North, South, East and West roads.

From my hotel window I look across to the city’s main square. The city square is a large open space made up of a field of large grass squares bound by sidewalks. In the middle is a cluster of glass pyramids, inspired by the Louvre. The pyramids are skylights for a department store hidden below the city square.

Two of the sides of the square are defined by the Bell Tower and Drum Tower, two restored classic structures. The West Road is the third defining boundary with the McImperial Restaurant from the Nixon Dynasty on the fourth side of the square. My favorite past time is sitting in the square and people watching.


Bell Tower

South Gate

After seeing Wen Feng off on the bus to return to her parents I walked to the South Gate. Xian is a walled city with a large gate at each axis. I have made three trips to the countryside and on each trip I exited the city through the South Gate with a large park on the outside of the wall. Every morning the park is full of people doing what Chinese do to jump start their day. This morning I wanted to see up close the Tai Chi, ballroom dancing, sword dancing and birdcage walking. I never made it to the outside of the wall to the park.

Just before I arrived at the South Gate I discovered a small pagoda next to the Su Yuan Men gate leading to the a narrow pedestrian lane lined with small shops in Tang Dynasty style architecture. Exploring all the nooks and crannies in this area held my attention for a couple of hours.

By the time I finished exploring it was too late for the park, most of the activities finish by nine or so.The lanes was lined with artist’s shops, painters studios, jade sculptures, chop carvers, shadow puppets and vendors selling tourist trinkets.



South Gate

In amongst the shops and shoppers were 20 art students sketching the area. It is a very colorful area and a must visit spot for any visitor to Xian.

Yesterday Wen Feng took me on one of the most difficult hikes I’ve ever taken so I’m feeling a little tired today.

I returned to my room for a rest before heading out again in the afternoon. Last night we visited the night market behind the Drum Tower looking for souvenir terracotta warrior replicas. I had noticed from the night market near the Bell Tower a tunnel through the base of the tower, which I wanted to explore this afternoon.

The Drum and Bell towers don’t look like towers as they are not tall and thin.

I’d describe them more like a traditional Chinese temple or pagoda. They were a gate that was part of an inner wall in ancient times.

On the other side of the Drum Tower I discovered Hui Min Jie or Muslin Restaurant Lane as it is also known. The best place in town to eat lamb. It was as interesting as Su Yuan Men was this morning.

This area began as a center for Muslim restaurants but lately many of the restaurants are being replaced by shops catering to tourists.

It was seedy but more spicy then Su Yuan Men. Motorcycles and powered trishaws maneuver through the crowds at high speed adding a pinch of adventure.

In fact, by comparison, Hui Min Jie is the more intriguing of the two; Su Yuan Men is antiseptic, more “designed”. Hui Min Jei has organically evolved, so it’s visually messy and lacks the uniformity of Su Yuan Men.

The overall effect of the disorder of Hui Min Jie put me on guard but it is Su Yuan Men where the pickpockets are more active.

Xian Yang

So far I’ve made four trips out of Xian. Wen Feng was not available until three days after I arrived in Xian, so she arranged two full day tours to the surrounding area outside of Xian.On my second day I left Xian on a tour of the western area around Xian Yang (pop. 800,000).I was surprised to discover the Terracotta Warriors are not in Xian. Qin Shi Huang, (Qin Dynasty 221-206 BC) the first Emperor of China and the person the Terracotta Warriors guard who is also the builder of the Great Wall, actually lived in Xian Yang.It is about a half an hour drive from Xian.Outside the city are a number of ancient emperor’s mausoleums, all in the shape of earthen pyramids.

The mausoleums are located at the center with the dirt piled almost as high as the Egyptian pyramids These pyramids are not covered in stone. From a distance, they look like natural hills covered in grass and trees. It is no wonder the Terracotta Warriors were not discovered until 1974.


Terracotta Warriors

I’ve always been fascinated with the Silk Road and hope one day to travel the length of it. Last October I visited Ladakh, Kashmir the western terminus of the Silk Road. So my second reason for coming to Xian after seeing the Terracotta Warriors was to see the eastern terminus of the Silk Road.

Unfortunately, all that remains is a monument in the middle of the road. Actually that’s not accurate the vast number of white hats worn around Xian is an indication of the size of the Muslim population. The Islamic faith entered China via the Silk Road.

The following day I met the Terracotta Warriors. Only a small fraction of the site has been excavated. So far not a single complete warrior has been found. They were all crushed when the roof caved in due to a fire.

The government is taking a very conservative approach to excavation and conservation of all these areas. Only three areas are being worked at this time and very slowly. I think this is the correct approach. It takes nearly six months to restore one solider. It is certainly the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle.

One reason for all the precautions is the ongoing search for new techniques for assembling the fragments and the unknown effect on the newly exposed artifacts. Some of the unearthed pieces still had flakes of the original paint.

Archeologists have determined that originally all the figures were completely painted but due to flooding, fire and time the paint has been erased. However, using remaining flakes of paint approximations have been made of fully colorized statues.Early on, soon after the pieces with flakes were found it was discovered the color faded after being exposed to the atmosphere.

So the authorities have decided to slow the excavation at the sire of the warriors in anticipation of improved techniques in the future. Also, there are no immediate plans to begin excavation at the other surrounding sites for the same reason.

Nearby is the Lian Hua Tang (Lotus Pool) hot springs. The baths have been excavated and the buildings rebuilt. This was a favorite hangout for Emperor Tang and Yan Gui Fei, his concubine. In the 20th Century Chiang Kai Shek had his offices and a small living quarters here after he was captured by the Communists and before fleeing to Taiwan. There is a marble statue of Yan Gui Fei in the middle of the garden. Nearby stands a tower where Yan Gui Fie would dry her long hair.

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Big Wild Goose Pagoda


Big Wild Goose Pagoda

The next day we visited the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, located in the southern part of Xian in what used to be Change an City in the Tang Dynasty.

Actually, the formal name of the pagoda is Ci-an Temple Pagoda but since the temple disappeared a long time ago, the pagoda is known by its other name. It was first built in 652 by Xuanzang a prominent Buddhist scholar who is credited with introducing Buddhism to China. Due to budget constraints the original structure was built of mud and brick to house the Sanskrit scriptures he had brought back from India.

The original structure collapsed soon after it was built. Between 701 and 704 the present structure was built. It’s seven levels high (209ft), which I climbed and is noticeably leaning.

One of the city improvements has been the creation of a park at the rear of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. The main feature is a huge water fountain the size a football field. Twice a day the fountain performs to European classical music, once at noon and then again at eight thirty in the evening. Both times I was there the fountain performed to Handle Royal Fireworks. It is a great opportunity for young drunks to also perform by running through the fountain.



A secondary attraction is the guards tasked with keeping people off the light poles and other acts of self-endangerment. Half of the enforcers are statuesque females all over six feet tall wearing hot red uniforms. When they are not chasing after drunks and Americans climbing light poles for a better photo shot they march around the fountain in a very crisp military fashion goose step.

Hua Shan

Our next journey out of town was to climb Hua Shan Mountain; which is redundant as Shan means mountain.


Hua Shan

In ancient times this would have been an area frequented by landscape artist painting mist covered mountains.
These days the mountains are always shrouded in a haze, not a mist. There are four peaks on Hua Shan. The trail is mostly granite steps. The last part of the climb is straight up a ladder carved into the side of the rock with only a chain to hold onto.

We made two of the four peaks before running out of time. The peaks are less then 7,000 feet but the steep gradient makes it seem a lot higher. And this I did the day before my sixty-first birthday. I had mixed feelings about the number of thumbs-up and at-a-boys I received at the top; especially as many of the thumbs arrived on high heels.

The trail was narrow with heavy traffic. I’m told I was lucky to be here in April. In May the tourist arrive and there are long waits due to traffic jams on the trial.

There are restaurants and a guest house near the peak. Porters earning $3 a trip carrying supplies up on the end of a bamboo pole. Carrying the heavy weight is a feat in itself but they also have to maneuver around the hikers. One porter is also a local opera singer. His falsetto voice could be heard all the way up the mountain or was it Liu’s death scream’s echo?

Close to the top all the handrails are covered with red ribbons and locks. The red ribbon symbolizes the heart. Couples and families tie the ribbon to bind themselves together and the lock secures the deal.

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The Peaks


Locks and Ribbons


When Wen Feng’s family learned it was my birthday they invited me to XianYang for little get together.Her brother-in-law is a chef and prepared lunch, if you can call 14 dishes lunch. He prepared everything except for grandmother’s homemade sausage. Her parents and two sisters were there for lunch and her brother and his wife arrived after the cake cutting ceremony.



The beverage was Wen Feng’s mom’s homemade wine. Wen Feng’s father is a retired contractor who spends his time looking after his grandson. Her mother is a social worker responsible for helping the unemployed find work, registering marriages, and I guess policing the one-child policy.

I think dad’s wine drinking is rationed, but his drinking quota was suspended for the special occasion, so we toasted everything from Nixon’s visit to the discovery of the Terracotta Warriors.

It was one of my more colorful birthday parties and because of all the toasting it was the first time since my fourth birthday I had to take an afternoon nap.

Brunch at Cui Hua Shan
At dawn the next day we headed out to Cui Hua Shan for another climb.Cui Hua Shan is one hour on a local bus out of Xian. The bus was the small 24 passenger type. The bus was meant to take us all the way to the village at the entrance.At the next to last stop to driver announced everyone had to get off and change buses. I was in the back and the last to leave the crowed bus.  

I noticed everyone barked something to the bus driver as we exited. I ask for a translation.They all called him what can loosely be translated as an asshole. One guy was shouting at him saying, “You have caused us to lose our face in front of our foreign friend”. I was already off the bus by the time I heard this. It was too late to punch the air and give a, “Yea! Right on!!!” It seems the driver didn’t want to drive up the twisting mountain road. It was a short walk through a small village to the trail head.

This hike is a lot more difficult then Hua Shan so we stopped for brunch before beginning the hike.By now my curiosity for adventurous eating was waning.I was craving something, anything familiar; I selected the restaurant only because it had chairs and tables in a courtyard. Most stalls along the way only offered low stools.

I hate balancing a hot bowl on noodles on my lap. We were about to walk up a steep valley littered with granite debris from a major landslide and then straight up the side of a cliff to the peak. I needed some fortification.The lane to the trail head was lined with open-air stalls offering mostly homemade noodle dishes, local herb dishes and fresh uncategorized vegetables.

I spotted an alleyway leading to a new guest house with two tables in a brick lined courtyard. It looked very inviting, especially the red flowers on the table. The level of excitement and attention received indicated we may have been the first customers. Bad sign.

I started by ordering a safe dish, boiled rice with chicken. No chicken, but yes boiled rice, well not exactly boiled rice but very similar. A nice ceramic dish was placed in front of me with a brown liquid. Okay not exactly what I was expecting but what’s with the plastic bag around the bowl? It’s to demonstrate their level of cleanliness. I guess it is from the same school of thought requiring lampshades to be perpetually wrapped in plastic.

The soup was tasteless and too light; it just didn’t cut the mustard. I needed something more familiar. There was a long exchange between Wen Feng and the owner.

They didn’t have chicken soup but they did have free-range chickens. Well, that’s more like it. But the preparation will take about a half an hour. Huh?

The owner then climbs a ladder onto the roof and returns to the table with our chicken. You’re kidding, right? I can’t do this. Eat it, I just met him. It’s too late, we’re committed.

I won’t go into the process of how it went from being a chicken to what arrived at the table a half an hour later.

In the interim, the cock-a-doodle-dos from the remaining brothers on the rooftop began to sound more like, where’s my brother Liu?

I had spent the waiting half hour mulling over whether to start with a wing or a drumstick. I was very disappointed with what arrived. The chef got carried away with the meat cleaver and reduced poor Liu to shattered bones and tiny pieces of meat. As Confucius said, keep your expectations low and you will be rewarded with less.


Cui Hua Trail

Cui Hua Shan

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At the Top

My first (and last) attempt as an Eastern Philosopher; Better to hike on empty stomach then to eat your unfulfilled expectations.

We begin the hike in the middle of a deep valley littered with huge chunks of granite that have slide off the side of the mountain, some millions of years ago. Surprisingly, the trail is paved with granite blocks from the base to the top. It is hard to imagine the amount of work and the number of people required to build the trail.

The first three quarters of the way is very difficult climbing over, around and through fissures in the rocks. Once we are through the debris field we start up the last part, stairs cut into the side of the mountain.

At a point just beyond the debris field and the beginning of the steep ascent there is an alternative trail passing through two caves. I forgot to mention this area was a favorite of Emperor Tang. He would come here during the hot summer months with his concubine. The reason is the debris field has a unique natural phenomenon, air conditioning.

When the side of the mountain slid down into the valley it fractured trapping hundreds of air pockets. The air pockets never see the light of day but hold the winter’s snow.

We went through two of the caves – Wind Cave and Ice Cave. The temperature in the Ice Cave is 25 degrees Fahrenheit. The outside ambient temperature was in the 80’s. The cave was lined with blocks of ice, very strange and too cold.

From the cave the trail becomes a steep stair leading to what I thought was the top, a Buddhist temple I held in view during the climb, like a golfer focused on the pin. The stairs end at the door to the temple which passes into a courtyard. Exiting the courtyard I found there were two higher peaks and a vendor just outside the temple offering warm beer.


Wind Cave and Ice Cave

I passed on the beer and climbed to the first peak. The next peak was another 100 feet higher. We had to pass over a deep crevasse on a shaky chain bridge and then climb a steel ladder up the side of a cliff. I’m now walking along a ridge line about two feet wide looking down a sheer cliff on one side and a magnificent view into another range of mountains in Sichuan Province on the other side thinking this is absolute madness. Wen Feng has a little acrophobia so she waited at the steel bridge.

After shuffling along the ridge line I reached the last part of the climb, a twenty foot ascent to the highest peak. My hands get sweaty just remembering it. It was a well worn slope with a few small trees to hold onto, a handful of pebbles to add to the adventure and a couple of rock outcroppings to step on. The top is a flat rock cantilevered over the cliff. I had a couple take my photo before slithering off the peak.

This is without a doubt the most dangerous thing I have ever done. (If you don’t count my riding fright trains period)

Ear, Nose and Throat

The sun never made an appearance during the entire visit to Xian. I’m told it is the dust blowing off the Gobi Desert. The haze has been one of the biggest disappointments of this trip, but not the biggest. Tied for first place is “Smokers Paradise” and “Ear-Bleeding Capital of the World”. If I were to become Emperor of Xian the first thing I would do is remove all horns from every vehicle in the city, then outlaw portable bull horns. There are very few western tourists here, but a huge number of deaf Chinese tourists. Anyone with a horn uses it 24/7 trucks, taxis, cars, motorcycles and trumpet players.

Taxi drivers think nothing of sitting on their horns at three in the morning. It’s no wonder they all shout at each other. Everyone has lost his or her hearing.To be heard over the din guides have a small bullhorn with a little speaker box clipped to their belt powered by a 1,000 watt amplifier.

It was during my walk down the Muslim alley today when I saw a guideless speaking bullhorn hanging from a tree. It was going on at full volume-alone without an operator in sight.

As I returned to my room to begin my jottings I wonder if a tour group had revolted at the high volume and threw the bullhorn into the tree.

It was a fascinating trip. The Terracotta Warriors are a must see while the mountain hikes were breathtaking, literally.


The Restored Bronze Low Chariot, part of Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Army

© Copyright 2006 Michael Morrissey, All Rights Reserved.

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