This February, I was fortunate to enjoy my Spring Festival (Chinese Lunar New Year Festival) with my wife’s family in Xi’an. It was an awesome experience, worth going and seeing and doing. There was much of my time visiting friends and family, as well as partaking of the old Chinese traditions for Spring Festival. Some of the traditions include putting decorations around the house – various characters that invoke the spirit of the New Year, bringing luck and prosperity. They also liked to hang lanterns. These were anywhere you could imagine – in homes, on poles and walls, even in the trees. In addition to this, there were fireworks everywhere. I cannot stress this enough. I was having flashbacks to wars I am not old enough to have ever fought, because it sounded as though the city were being bombed. The people seem not to mind, and in general rather enjoy the experience. Spending time with extended family and friends is a necessity. It seems like it is the one major time of year that people from all over China return to their families.
Another great tradition is making dumplings. I am not talking about the western dumplings – like chicken and dumplings – I am talking about Asian dumplings, sometimes called potstickers in the West. These are made from scratch during Spring Festival, and can be filled with just about anything. Often, the dumplings are made with vegetables, or herbs and meat, but during the holiday we used a special recipe of chives and pork with various seasonings to bring prosperity for the New Year. I tried my hand at rolling the dough, but my mother-in-law quickly changed my responsibility. I also was not very good at making the filling. For some reason, I could not chop the meat small enough. In the end, I was filling and folding the dumplings, at which I was relatively good. Afterwards, the four of us ate almost all the dumplings we had made – which was a fair amount.
Although I did not see the Terracotta Warriors on my first visit to Xi’an, I did get to visit many of the sites that make Xi’an famous. First and foremost, the Xi’an Drum Tower and the Xi’an Bell Tower are very popular destination for people traveling to Xi’an – even other Chinese. They are well preserved, and nothing else is really built around the towers. They are even still used for their original purposes – during the special times of the year, the drums and bells will ring.
Another important set of landmarks in Xi’an are the pagodas. There are a few, but the most prominent of these is the Wild Goose Pagoda. There is a story of a famous philosopher traveling to India. When he returned to China, he converted the Hindu texts into Chinese and helped integrate them into the Buddhist culture. The pagoda is preserved and visited. Every night there is a laser light show with coordinated water fountains. They have classical music playing in the background to tie the lights and water together.
Xi’an is also very well known for its Muslim street. While having a designated Muslim street may seem odd to many of us, it quite accepted and even celebrated in China. It is similar to many of the hutongs, or alleys, in China, except that most, or all, of the shops and stands are owned and run by Chinese Muslims. There is a great deal of cultural food – special food that cannot easily be found elsewhere in Xi’an. There are so many food stands and so many people sampling the food, that roadway is usually clogged with people from beginning to end. There are also many unique gifts and bric-a-brac sold along this hutong. The hutong is also home to one of the oldest mosques in China. The mosque is still in use. It is a very beautiful building, and I had the pleasure of looking around the inside during my visit.
There is also a large lake in Xi’an. It lies in the Southeast section of the city, and has a park built around it. Apparently, when Xi’an had been the capitol of China, one of the emperors was upset that the palace was not the highest point. Instead, there was a large hill in the south. He decided that he wanted the palace to be the highest point in the city. So, he had the hill removed and made into the lowest point in the city. It was turned into a lake, with its own river inlet and set of waterfalls. The park and lake are gorgeous. Even the buildings around the park are well kept. It adds a luxury feel to the very old city. There is also a rich culture in this area, indeed throughout the city. There are many buildings with historic poetry carved onto the walls, adding an aire of enlightenment to its beauty.
The last but still important part of Xi’an is the city wall. Unlike many other large cities in China, Xi’an has kept its city wall intact and in use. It runs completely around the inner city, and separates the inner city from the outer city with four large gates. The towers and palace are still inside the walls. The inner city tends to be the business and tourist attraction part of Xi’an, with the outer city being where the schools and homes typically rest. Despite the inner city only being a part of Xi’an, the city walls are immense. They are 30 feet tall, 40 feet wide at the top and 60 at the base, and they run for 8.5 miles around the inner city. The wall is such a large part of China’s history and culture, that it still is the location for part of the Spring Festival television broadcast in China. I was able to walk a section of the walls and see both sides of the city, as well as all of the Spring Festival activities taking place on or around the wall.
Xi’an is an old and beautiful city that holds many treasures, not the least of which is my wife’s family.