In the second of three dispatches from China, Sara Wheeler takes in the city of Xi’an at dusk.
At owl light, lamps glimmered from the eaves of the Bell Tower, casting shadows on the cobbles and hanging lanterns. For a while the brick facing of the ramparts glowed in the dusk; then darkness smudged them out, and I cycled on.
The fourteenth-century Xi’an city walls remain intact (uniquely in China), and a 14-kilometre bike ride on top of them gives a snapshot of that city’s tumultuous history. Situated in the heart of the country more than a thousand kilometres south-west of Beijing, Xi’an (pronounced See Ann), is the place where it all began: in the third century BC, warrior emperor Qin Shi Huang united the feudal princelings of the Middle Kingdom and made a country called China. Qin was a remarkable, brutish figure. During his 36-year rule he standardised laws, currency, weights, measures, axle lengths and a written language. He also built the Great Wall, burned any book that did not glorify him and buried hundreds of scholars alive.
As capital of the Qin Empire, Xi’an grew into the greatest city in the world, and one of the most cosmopolitan. It drew in scholars and merchants from across Asia and marked the eastern end of the Silk Road, the place from which camel caravans a thousand strong set off through the gates I was cycling over, taking silk, gunpowder and chrysanthemums west and lumbering back a year later with bolts of linen and sacks of cucumbers. A watchtower still rises on each corner of the crenellated walls.
The city has spread miles beyond the ramparts, but they still form its heart, and at dusk, people were hurrying back from work on top of the wall, or pushing babies. At a teashop in a cleft, two men played mah-jong besides long-spouted copper kettles brewing various types of tea, and in the courtyard behind an 8-piece orchestra battled through Qin opera tunes as a succession of women clutched a miniature microphone and shouted lugubriously. (Qin is the oldest of China’s many folk opera traditions). And the city light faded upwards into violet heights.
Across the neat grid of streets within the walls, blackened tenements squared up to pockmarked office buildings and the lonely lotus bud finial of a Buddhist temple. In the north-eastern corner, I parked my bike to look down into Renmin (People’s) Square. Much of Xi’an’s civic architecture went up in the fifties, built with Moscow’s money during a period of Soviet entente, and the blocky, unforgiving exterior of Renmin was characteristically Stalinist – the kind of architecture that says, Keep Out. But to make up for it, from the west gate, a ray of dying sun flashed off the octagonal roofs of a blue minaret. Alongside it, I recognised the warrens of the Muslim Quarter where I had nibbled cloves of raw garlic at lunchtime in a Hui café that smelt of boiling greens and sesame oil.
Beyond the walls, lights flipped on in the windows of a thousand tower blocks. Xi’an remains a flourishing city of 8 million (if a polluted one), and is the capital of the resource-rich Shaanxi province west of the Yellow River. In less than a decade China has poured $4 trillion into property and as I biked along monster cranes bristled for miles and miles in every direction – all over the country, cranes are as ubiquitous as noodle shops and paddy fields. What I took for a light show one night from my hotel room in Xi’an turned out to be the flashing lamps of welders working through the night on the renovation of a 300-room building.
To the north I could just make out the granite peaks of the Sacred Mount Hua, and the last snaking lines of tour buses returning from the Terracotta Warriors, Qin’s egregious necropolis where 8,000 men and horses wait loyally in battle formation. It took 750,000 workers to create the army: each figure, famously, is different – I noted that even the pattern of studs on the kneeling archers’ shoes varied. Excavation has been in progress for a quarter of a century and has a long, long way to go. When I visited, three workers were carting mud and soil around one of the pits in wheelbarrows. Three quarters of a million to create it, three to reconstruct it – perhaps that’s part of the problem.
By then I was back at the Bell Tower, and the night sky was dark.