Xian – where it ends, and where it began

This will be the final stop in my Silk Roads project!

But first let me digress a little about trains.

My Chinese overnight train trips have been somewhat pragmatic: Inevitably they have begun at bedtime and ended before breakfast and so have been all about getting to sleep and I’ve missed the subtle etiquette around sharing food and conversation so absorbing during longer journeys on Russian trains. It turns out sleep quality critically depends on successfully decoding each train’s label: We can ignore D trains – they might be supersonic 21st century bullets, but they don’t travel overnight and are only good for naps. T trains are overnighters and must be absolutely fabulous –  their tickets are invariably snapped up within seconds of going on sale; I never manage to see the inside of one.

Z trains are 20th century workhorses, but the 4 number version can on occasion be rather sophisticated.

The K9669 – lilac brocade, antimacassars, lace curtains and wide enough to sleep on my back – who could ask for more?

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_5946On the other hand 3 number Z trains have rock-hard seats and pillows evidently filled with actual rock dust.

The K553 en route through the Gobi desert – no fancy upholstery. Stuffing my jacket into my own pillowcase significantly increases the likelihood of a good night’s sleep, even when squashed on my side.


I am currently on a G train which, it is now evident, is the lowest rung on the totem pole. Sleep is going to depend, not only on whether I can stay on my side all night, but also on how effectively I can convince myself that the bedding has been laundered in the recent past. On the plus side, the rest of the G train clientele evidently considers the 4 berth ‘soft sleeper’ an unimaginable extravagance, and I have not only the compartment, but the whole carriage to myself. As a consequence the attendant will be able to sleep through the night and is so happy he he has kept the sitting toilet open as my reward. Nonetheless I wimpily swap the next ‘G’ leg for a daytime D that will cover the distance in 1/4 the time and hence doesn’t need to provide linens, grimy or otherwise.

X’ian – where it began and ends

For three centuries after AD 618 Xian (then called Chang’an) was the greatest city in the world with two million inhabitants encircled by twenty two miles of ramparts. On its eastern side canals provided trade connections all the way to the South China Sea and the Western Gate marked both the end and the beginning of the Silk Roads.

The remaining ramparts, only 9 miles in circumference, encircle the previous inner city of Chang’an. More perfect for a leisurely bike ride if it wasn’t 90 degrees with proportionate humidity.


The Western Gate


That’s more like it – the outside of the ramparts are fringed with a quite lovely, and more to the point shady, municipal park.


The park has something for everyone, especially this useful bed of pebbles for clockwise circling and exercising the feet.


Historians claim the Silk Roads were established in the 2nd century BC but traffic started long before any written accounts. Chinese silk from 1500BC has turned up in tombs in Afghanistan, in the hair of a 1000BC Egyptian mummy and in a 600BC German grave. The caravans – sometimes a thousand camels strong – also took iron and bronze, lacquer work and ceramics, and brought glass, gold and silver, Indian spices and gems, wool and linen, slaves and at one time the startling invention of chairs from the west. But the same caravans never completed the whole route. The goods were interchanged in an endless complicated relay race, growing even costlier the farther they were from their source.

The Western Market, had two hundred guilds of merchants from almost every people between Arabia and Japan – Persians, Turks and Central Asians – Sogdians especially –  Indians, Bactrians, Jews, Syrians. The moneylenders were Uighurs. Today the Western Market is predominantly Hui Muslim.

The current western market maybe more prosaic, but equally popular


For a place so far from the sea, grilled squid is unexpectedly popular


Another lilac pillbox lady and dumplingista friends


Lost in translation again


In the second century BCE Xian became the chosen capital of Qin Shihuangdi, a near mythical tyrant who became the first emperor of a unified China. Qin conquered the fragmented feudal princedoms and knit them into a centralized bureaucracy with a cultural unity that has persisted since. So Xian and the Silk Roads flourished. But all did not stay well on the Western Front. As Colin puts it:

‘By the time of his death Qin Shihuangdi became a haunted idolater, searching in vain for the elixir of life. For seventy miles around his capital 270 palaces had been decorated in the native styles of the regions he had conquered, and furnished with their food and concubines. Now these palaces were linked with covered passageways down which the ageing emperor, terrified of assassination moved neurotically, continually, never sleeping in the same bed twice…Yet he died a thousand miles from his capital….for weeks he was carried back to Xian from the coast. Eventually the corpse became so putrid that a wagon of rotting fish was summoned to accompany the closed litter to hide its stench’.

For two millenia grass grew over his neglected mausoleum. Then in 1974 peasants sinking a well broke into a vault were life-sized terracotta warriors stood mysteriously to arms. Soon they uncovered a whole buried army, mustered to guard the paranoid emperor through eternity.

Each of the soldiers in the terracotta army look endearingly different – a charioteer


Even a section for the pets


Quite surprisingly most of it hasn’t been excavated yet, and it doesn’t look like there’s any rush.



The stability following unification allowed the Silk Roads to flourish then in 618 Xian became the capital of the Tang dynasty. But it all collapsed precipitously as the Tangs turned their faces back towards the east.

The massive Tang Dynasty palace is also unexcavated, real people barely seen on top, for scale.


Some more things I learned about China in Xian

Chinese girls like to dress up


Where possible they persuade their boyfriends to join in


When its wedding time everyone gets into the swing


Even when it’s 90 degrees


I buy a ticket for an opera about the cultural revolution. The actual performance is a chorale of classical songs


The ushers are very assiduous. They are equipped with red lasers which they use to illuminate antisocial behavior (examples, shuffling feet, turning round, taking a photo of the performers)


But unexpectedly afterwards, the cultural area of Xian is illuminated too.









Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s