Present day Xi’an is arguably the history centre of China. Formerly Chang’an, this ancient city used to be the capital for several dynasties ranging from the Zhou Dynasty in 11th century BC to the Tang Dynasty in 10th century AD. It was a thriving place where many of the world’s religions coexisted and Chinese culture flourished, led by generations of emperors, courtesans, poets, monks, merchants and soldiers.
It was also the fabled beginning and end of the Silk Road, which ensured caravans of goods were traded between the east and the west, enriching the art and pleasures of kingdoms across the Eurasian continent.
Central Xi’an is bounded by the old city walls, started by the Ming Dynasty in 1370 and one of the oldest and best preserved Chinese city walls. With four grand city gates for the four cardinal directions and four major streets named Bei, Nan, Dong & Xi Dajie (North, South, East & West Main Street), the ancient city’s neat planned grid system puts some modern cities to shame.
The city centre is dominated by the Bell Tower, which originally held a large bell that was rung at dawn. The nearby Drum Tower was used to mark nightfall to dictate the end of the working day for the town’s folk.
Thanks to the Silk Road, many Muslims made their home in Chang’an. The Muslim Quarter has been home to the city’s Hui community (Chinese Muslims) for centuries. A stroll through these backstreets greets you with sights, sounds and aromas somewhat unfamiliar. The food market was filled with interesting meats, sweets and baked goods, while locals spoke with a different dialect and old men wore skullcaps.
Seemingly hidden from plain view, we stumbled through a wooden door to find the Great Mosque, one of the largest mosques in China with a unique blend of Chinese and Islamic architecture. Although we didn’t sneak in a photo.
With Chinese New Year running for a week from 31 January to 6 February, we were proud to be in China’s ancient capital at this special time of year. During our first morning walk, we noticed many small piles of burnt ash on the footpath, with chalk circles around them. We found out later that it was a tradition to burn spirit money (fake paper money) as gifts to ancestors who have died. The chalk circle has an opening to lead the spirit to the afterlife.
In an old section of the city filled with traditional brick houses and storefronts, we found alleys littered with red paper fragments. It was the remains of red firecrackers that must have made a cacophony of noise and sparks during the preceding night.
What more did Xi’an and Chinese New Year have to offer?
Visited 30th and 31st January 2014.