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The International Writers Magazine: China

Leah Eades
Xi’an, China, is best known for being the epicentre from which one visits the famous Terracotta Army... but in fact it’s so much more than that. One of the Four Great Ancient Capitals, the walled city offers enough delights on its own to satisfy the budget traveller needing a break from simple sightseeing.


Upon arrival, your first port of call must be to take a stroll above the rooftops along the 8 ½ miles of wall that encompass the Old Town, on which regular and tandem bicycles and golf carts are available for hire. The Drum and Bell Towers are also worth a visit, but on your way to them don’t forget to take in the sometimes baffling but always delicious street food - from sweet potatoes freshly baked to a glutinous sweet rice pudding, you’ll never go hungry in Xi’an. Another gastronomical gem is the city’s Muslim Quarter- you never really expect to see headscarves and halal in China! The highlight of any stay, however, must be the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, nestled just outside of the town walls.

Arrive at around 8pm to be greeted by a majestic water fountain show accompanied by booming classical music, and a fairground atmosphere of families eating candy floss, local choirs doing their thing and an enormous town dance session just around the corner. 

Afterwards return to the Xi’an Shuyuan International Youth Hostel; nestled up against the city wall, they offer a free pick-up service, have relaxing courtyards (complete with a pet terrapin), a pleasant cafe with one of the best cups of tea a Brit in Asia could ever dream of, and a lively bar decorated with an array of Terracotta Warriors, which, should you go at St. Patrick’s Day, you shall find bedecked with shamrocks and all-round Irish cheer- this hostel will put on a celebration with any excuse, and attracts an engaging mix of travellers, expats and locals. The hostel will also happily organise for you day trips to nearby panda sanctuaries and, of course, the Warriors themselves - but this is an unnecessary luxury for those who want to pinch those pennies and go it alone. A short bus ride at a local price from the East Square, opposite Xi’an’s central station, will take you to the Warriors... but first stop off en route at the Huaquing Springs, where the Emperor Xuanzong caused outrage by “frolicking” around with his saucy concubine Yang Guifei back in the Tang Dynasty.

terracotta Today the gardens are a place of quiet beauty which one can admire from the heights above by taking a reasonably-priced cable car. The coolness and calm will be much appreciated afterwards in the hectic tourist bustle you’ll find shuffling between the three pits containing over 7,000 life-size models of warriors and horses arranged in battle formation, one of the most astounding archaeological discoveries of all time...

Whether or not it will be these that form your impression of Xi’an, or the charming vitality of the city, I’ll leave it to you to judge! After the Terracotta Warriors we were feeling flat. We'd been to see the army in a painfully hungover state then returned to get the sleep we'd missed out on, and it was now nearing night ime. We were in that dazed and bleary mindset that follows an unexpected nap. Someone mentioned that if you head outside the city walls and find the Big Goose Pagoda as evening set in, there would be a music and fountain show. Soon we were on the bus looking for signs of large deified poultry.

We did not find oversized Geese, but nevertheless the pagoda was hard to miss. It was giant, and floodlit so that it shone ethereally in the darkness, reminding us of just how far from home we were. Its base was crawling with locals, and it seemed that a fairground had been set up for the show. Young families hooked ducks, and children screamed over candyfloss. Hunched old women pushed trolleys around selling unrecognisable delicacies, which we bought be indicating the size we wanted with our hands, and the price in Yuan with our fingers. The vendors smiled at us with a benign twinkle in their eyes: O! Poor ignorant foreigners! Look how they try! As we struggle to pronounce “Thank you” in Mandarin they laugh outright, and we join in: Yes! We are hopeless! We know!

We wander. Around one corner we come across a male voice choir practicing. The lined faces of wizened old men, who look like they could have stepped straight out of a folk tale, are dwarfed by those of the taller, concentrating youths, but all have the same identical look, eyes shut, mouths spread into wide “o”s.  Their women watch proudly, gossiping amongst themselves and giggling. Big Goose

The melody is incomprehensible to us, but rises and falls in a way that one never hears in English churches or glee choirs. Another corner, and here we stumble across some sort of mass exercise dance workout; it seems the whole town and its dog fill the square, children with their parents and old biddies together, stretching and turning as music blasts out all around. Who leads and who follows, we can’t tell.

But this still wasn’t the fountain show that we were looking for. Not that we knew what we were looking for. We continued our way through the crowds, and eventually we heard it: strains of classical music carrying on the breeze. We followed, and the crowds became thicker. And suddenly we had tumbled straight into it: fountains embedded at the base of the pagoda shot jets of water high into the velvety sky, illuminated so that the very water looked alight. The classical music swelled and as it did so so did the springs, and together they danced. The crowd was hushed here, just watching. As were we.
© Leah Eades September 2010
leaheades at
Gao Fu

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