The Silk Road, China

Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Xian - the end of the Silk Road

It began to sink in as we stood on the old city walls of Xian overlooking the Western gate through which the silk caravans would have passed: this was the end of a long road that has guided my route from Damascus.

Xian, the ancient capital of China, is of course much more than a Silk Road town. The influences of the road remain: there is a Muslim quarter and mosque and round bread loaves and kebabs of Central Asia stubbornly refuse to disappear completely from the street stalls. But for the first time since Iran, I find myself out of the once nomadic steppes and deserts and back into a civilisation steeped in history.

Not that it is very visible today. Apart from the restored old city walls and the odd symbolic bell tower, everything is new; Xian has apparently embraced capitalism with an insatiable appetite. Familiar brands dominate the high street, including Starbucks (perhaps the best soya cappuccino I have ever had in my life), McDonalds, KFC and clothing brands too numerous to mention, ranging from Gucci to Etam.

The sun rarely shines in Xian. Instead a heavy, humid haze hangs over the city, meaning it is impossible to see more than a few hundred metres. Despite the bad weather affecting China at moment which must play a role, this is clearly the effect of pollution. Having spent the best part of a week in Xian in high summer, even immediately following rainfall, I never saw the sun break through enough to cast shadows on the ground.

The City Walls of Xian enveloped in smog




Initially creating an aura of mystery, I quickly came to miss the complete lack of contrast in the light; it reminded me of skiing in flat light! Consequently, the time to enjoy it is at night. The city comes alive with its own lights and the people crowd the streets everywhere to such a degree that would have alarmed me had I not experienced Oxford Street.

Nevertheless, it is a fun city to spend a few days and indulge in some shopping. This we did with considerable dedication before heading out to the Terracotta Army, the jewel in Xian's crown of tourist attractions.

Shopping in the Muslim Quarter




The most impressive thing about the Terracotta Army is that any individual could conceive of - and execute - such an idea: to create a 6,000 strong army of warriors to protect his own tomb and his soul in the afterlife. Perhaps this is best example of the (justified) Chinese conviction of their superiority over all other races in ancient history which in turn caused the country's isolation and for her to be so dramatically overtaken by the rest of the world in the last 500 years. Of course, all this looks set to change now...

It is the scale of the army that will remain with me. The crowds around us and the distance we were from the soldiers sadly destroyed any sense of atmosphere and prevented real appreciation of the detail, but scale of the emperor's ambition came through very powerfully. Yet it is the detail makes the whole even more impressive: every soldier has a unique face, each was hand made and hand painted and equipped with weapons of the day. It is for this reason that the Terracotta Army is called the Eigth Wonder of the World.


Xian sadly marks the end of Helen's trip. In two weeks, we have moved from Central Asian Plov to Chinese style quail, from local beer to Starbucks, from a yurt to a four star hotel and from sand to the lush green terraces of Shaanxi province. I think no other two week period of my trip so far has seen such contrasts. I have enjoyed having her along enormously and will miss having someone to laugh at the trials and tribulations that are part and parcel of travelling in China.

JM

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