Do you want to see the real China?
You do? Ok, listen up.
And you should. These cities are buzzing with all the trappings of the 21st Century! Reaching for the future with all the gusto of a dog digging for a bone; they are definitely not to be missed.
But what about a peek into life further inside China’s colossal Middle Kingdom?
A place, that for all its tall buildings, fast train lines and mammoth crowds still bears the elements of a bygone era?
A city with 8-million people standing alone in the north west of China — Xi’an, to this day remains relatively isolated from other major cities. And that is proving both good and bad (depending on how you look at it)! For the purposes of capturing a place in time, it’s perfect. Xi’an is a city that even today remains (largely) untouched by many outside influences.
Sure, there are the usual western decadences in evidence, but it was only the early 2000’s when McDonalds first arrived in Xi’an; rewind a decade ago and there were just a couple of five star hotels, at best… and very little else in the way of global brands.
That said, Xi’an is in the midst of an enormous growth spurt that will put her on track for a prosperous future; Ikea has just landed and a W Hotel is under construction! But despite this and brands like Starbucks popping up (literally) on every corner (and a few Sterbucske), by and large Xi’an has retained her country town ‘China’ feel….
It is a place where time stands still. (Only the myriad of cranes and high-rises tell you otherwise!)
Just 20 years ago, Xi’an was a city without cars on the roads. Today, it’s a different story…the city’s roads are teeming with drivers weaving and honking to their heart’s content! But they are still grappling for a place amongst the two wheelers!
I’ve been to quite a few bigger cities in China this year and nowhere have I seen so many people on two (or three) wheels rolling along the streets. Not new, shiny, sleek state of the art pedalling machines either; most pushbikes are old, rusty and rattly, some barely hanging together. Motorbikes too. The ubiquitous cigarette dangling from many a driver’s mouth; bikes piled high with everything from planks of wood, boxes of fruit & veges – to people (four huddled together on the bike, no problems)! Basically anything that can balance precariously on the back (or front) with just enough room to see the road in front is allowed. The scene only adding to the city’s provincial charm.
The pace is slow…the frenzied urgency required of a big city still hasn’t penetrated into Xi’an’s psyche.
Add to the enchantment, the fact that the city still retains much of its imperial architecture….and many new buildings (high rises aside) are being built with the very same oriental structures, and of course the omnipresent red lanterns that dangle from many a shop front – all making you actually feel like you are in the far East.
There is still a ramshackle presence to many parts of China; and here in Xi’an there are as many manicured streets as there are bedraggled. Thick black scruffy power lines drape themselves recklessly through trees, while shabby shop fronts and market stalls are sandwiched tightly between new designer shopping centres.
Delve just a few blocks from suburbia and you’ll find small rural like villages marching to a different beat. Tuk Tuks chugging in and out….stalls selling local fare and at the end of the street, a sky-high pile of trash – this is the local rubbish tip!
While it seems that in a person’s daily life here, things are tightly controlled, there is also a (fresh) air of freedom! No helmets, no seat belts, drive however, whenever….sleep wherever, whenever….squat wherever!
Early in the morning, every open space is littered with bodies dancing in unison – sometimes it’s the elderly doing Tai Chi, other times it’s a bunch of young chefs or real estate agents getting the day started by knocking out some fast moves to Gangnam Style tunes. (And let’s not forget those random fire crackers I’m always harping on about.) Elderly people congregate in exercise parks, enthusiastically giving each machine a vigorous workout while chatting animatedly with their friends; Mahjong games are underway on street pavements and some people are already sleeping, their heads resting on whatever they can find.
Unlike other many other larger Chinese cities, street food carts are still allowed prime position across town. Whether it’s outside one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions, at the front of a shopping centre, next to KFC, or just on the side of the road to catch passers by for breakfast…these street food carts are a daily staple for locals.
You don’t come to Xi’an for a fancy restaurant (apart from the Westin of course)! 😉 For the most part, dining out involves traditional Chinese food. A local hole in the wall with spicy hotpot, bbq meat skewers, cold noodles, dumplings and steamed pancakes & burgers, Shaanxi style!
The people of Xi’an are still governed strongly by tradition…whether it’s illness (break a bone you stay home for 100 days) doing business (nourishing relationships is crucial – often better served with some cold hard cash)….or family ties. Grandparents live with most families and take care of the children. Many parents live out of town, for work.
There is a distinct lack of exposure to the outside world (remember there’s no Google and no media that isn’t condoned by the government)….and travel whilst booming (comparatively) is still limited. For a lot of older locals, the western face is still an enigma.
Outside the hotel bubbles and some cafes, English is minimal and while for a foreigner living here, it can be about as difficult as climbing Mt Everest, it only reminds you, this is quintessential China.
With an unrivalled history, Xi’an is more than just the breath-taking Terracotta Warriors……enveloped by stunning mountains, Xi’an is peppered with ancient monuments and historical sights – from the ancient city wall, to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, the first Chinese Emperor’s tomb, the Muslim Quarter, museums, hot springs and lakes.
There are just four first tier cities and around two dozen second tier cities and today more and more international airlines are launching flights into these 2nd tier Chinese cities; recognising that they also have a lot to offer the avid traveller. Much to my delight, Cathay now flies from most major cities with direct flights to Xi’an
Steal a glimpse into a China that still holds on to a rare simplicity and innocence.
(Note: This is not just a ploy to get you to come and visit me!) 😉
This is (real) China!
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