This is the train station where I arrived in Xi'an after taking the night train from Datong. I had shared a six bunk hard sleeper section with two men and two girls who ignored me so completely that I thought they were being unfriendly or even hostile. I felt a little hurt and did not know what to do because I generally got a smile or at least a nod from total strangers in similar circumstances. I retired into my shell, stayed out of their way and read as long as I could with my flashlight before finally falling asleep. As we were approaching Xi'an the next morning one of the girls blushed violently and said hello to me. Only then did I realize that their cold behaviour could have been caused by extreme embarrassment of sleeping in the presence of a stranger. It was a strange experience which forced me to meditate on the deep cultural differences between East and West.
I dropped my bag at the"Flats of Renmin" hotel and undertook the exploration of China's odest and most famous capital, Chang'an, now called Xi'an, the starting point of the fabled silk route to the west.
It is in the fertile Yellow River basin that the ancestors of the Chinese first developed the social structures that made agriculture and sedentary life possible. Archaeological digs at Bampo on the outskirts of modern Xi'an have unearthed the traces of a neolithic village occupied as early as 4500 BC. Chinese chronicles refer to a "Well Watered City" on this site at the beginning of the legendary Xia Dynasty (2200 - 1700 BC). Excavations further down the Yellow river have uncovered cities of the Shang Dynasty (1700 - 1100 BC) at Zhengzhou and Anyang with its characteristic bronze weapons, ornaments and vessels.
Fenghao, one of the capitals of the Zhou Dynasty (1100 - 221 BC), who replaced the Shang, was only 15 km south-west of present day Xi'an. XienYang, the capital of the short lived Qin Dynasty (221 - 207), was 12 kms west of here and the great Han Dynasty built its capital just north of the present city. After the four centuries of turmoil and disunity that followed the fall of the Han Dynasty, China was reunited again under the Sui Dynasty who built the great Chang'an on this site. Under the Tang Dynasty which followed (618 - 907), Chang'an became the largest city in Asia if not in the world. Its population reached two million in the 8th century! The region around Xi'an and Luoyang remained the heart of China until the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279), moved the capital to Kaifeng east of here in the 10th century and then to Hangzhou on the southern coast in the 12th.
This great North Gate was built much later by the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644), but the layout of Xi'an's fortifications and streets dates from the glorious Tang times. It is interesting to note that the multiple small windows of the tower were designed to allow hundreds of bowmen and crossbowmen to defend the gate.
This traditional Drum Tower was also built in the early Ming Dynasty near the city center.
As center of the civilized universe, the great Tang Chang'an was tolerant and cosmopolitan. External influences were invited in as the Tang nurtured sizeable communities of Mazdeans, Manicheans and Zoroastrians from Persia, Nestorian Christians from Syria and later, Muslims from central Asia.
The other communities dwindled but large numbers of Muslim Hui people flooded in from the western reaches of the Empire. They congregated into their own specific area north-west of the Drum Tower very much like the Chinese have regrouped themselves into the Chinatowns of large western cities.
A mosque has stood on this site in the center of the Muslim quarter since the 8th century. The layout of the present Great Mosque dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644), but the Main Gate and other wooden buildings existing today are probably less than a hundred years old.
The gate and the gardens of the Great Mosque are definitely Chinese but this site has been a place of worship used actively by the Muslim minority almost without interruption for eleven centuries.
Visitors can roam the grounds but only Muslims may enter the Prayer Hall. It does look different than a Chinese temple and more like a mosque.
The Bell tower marks the center of Xi'an where North street, East street, South street and West street meet. The original Bell Tower built by the Ming was rebuilt here by the Qing in the 18th century and was heavily restored a decade ago.
The best known of the many sights of this historic region is probably the stupendous "Terracotta Army" buried in the 3rd century BC to guard over the mausoleum of the Qin Emperor Shihuang. It had lain undisturbed for more than 22 centuries until farmers digging a well discovered it by accident in 1974. The mausoleum which is said to have taken 700 000 workers 36 years to complete has yet to be opened!
I usually don't care much for organized tours but I did join one for it was the most convenient way to visit the Terracotta Army and the Bampo neolithic village which are both some distance out of town. Both sites are impressive and well worth visiting but photography was forbidden everywhere and the herd of tourists of which I was a member was so closely watched that I did not manage to sneak a single shot. I did of course buy a pile of post cards (which was intended), but you will have to do without for I can't bring myself to scan someone else's photos for my site.
On the way back I got off the bus early to take this shot of what I think to be Xi'an's East Gate. If some one out there is sure of what this is, please let me know...
After three days visiting Xi'an on my own, I finally met my internet friends Hua Feng and Liu Chunming who had been intensely busy with exams until then. Here we are guzzling beer in "Mom's Cafe" across the street from Renmin Flats on Fenghe Lu.
A year before, I could not sleep one night so at 3 o'clock AM, I started to play with Qualcomm's Internet Phone 4 which I had just acquired. That is how I had my first contact with Hua Feng. The voice channel was bad so we used the chat mode for a while. Latter we kept in touch by e-mail looking forward to our first meeting which you see here. It was this experience which gave me the idea of finding internet contacts before leaving for an extended trip. Now I do it all the time and I must say that it makes a world of difference...
Their exams over, Hua Feng and Liu Chunming, who were both doing post grad work on signals processing theory at the Northwestern Polytechnic University, took two days off to show me around. They brought me here to visit the Shaanxi History Museum which I found fascinating but where I could not take pictures.
We visited a number of places of which the famous Big Goose Pagoda at the end of Yanta Lu south of the city. The original pagoda was built in the 7th century by Tang Emperor Gao Zhong to house Buddhist scriptures brought back from India by the backpacking monk Xuan Zang who translated them into Chinese. The original mud brick pagoda collapsed several times until replaced by this stone version in the Ming Dynasty.
Hua Feng and Liu Chunming were justly proud to show me the North Western Polytechnic University of which this Library is a recent addition financed by gifts from offshore Chinese. It was a most interesting and heart warming visit for me. I was welcomed like an old friend as toured their labs where I met some of their colleagues and Hua Feng's father who is a scientist and professor with the university.
That evening, Hua Feng's father, Dr. Huang Yong Kang prepared dinner for us. Dr Huang did not speak English but that did not cool his hospitality in any way. I must say that he was an excellent cook. The six course banquet he prepared himself was memorable. In the usual order, Xie Ning, Hua Feng's sister in law Xie Ning, Hua Feng, me, Hua Feng's father, Hua Feng's wife Qin Xiao Qun, and Hua Feng's friend Liu Chunming (a neighbour came in to take the picture).
We got together again in the afternoon of my last day to visit beautiful Xingqing Palace Park just east of the old city walls.
The Xingqing Park is said to be the site of gardens surrounding the Palace of Tang Dynasty Emperors but this palace is certainly not that old. Whatever its age, the park was a beautiful place to stroll in with good friends as you can see from these photos.
I spent a wonderful afternoon enjoying Xingqing Park with my friends Nancy, Hua Feng, his wife and Liu Chunming. Then, we went to a restaurant on East street for dinner and they all accompanied me to the station where I got on the night train to Lanzhou. I was amazed how nice they had been to me!