Xian and the Dumpling Banquet
“Go to Beijing to discover a 1000-year-old China. Go to Xian to discover a 3000-year-old China.”
Xian, considered one of the longest stretching roots of China’s history, was without a doubt one of my favourite stops on my journey through the spine of China. A bustling city no doubt, but the kind of bustle that you can watch as it flows around you, painting a characteristic city with the colours of life. The majority of my locations visited in the worlds most populated country, primarily consisted of the exploration of urban jungles. This urban jungle in particular, will remain a cherished memory in my heart and mind for the remainder of my life.
With a sudden jolt from the night trains uneven tracks, I awoke to Chinese families running to and fro in the carriage corridors. As I slowly adjusted my eyes to bright lights burning throughout the carriage, I laid still, watching as the smooth rural Chinese landscapes outside my window, gradually evolved into the veins of an ever-growing concrete valley.
As the morning mists melted away into the blazing sun, the rest of the group were slowly waking in their cramped bunk beds, preparing themselves for the day ahead. Once the train had pulled to a halt in the central hub on Xian, the dreaded walk through the station began, all of us heaving our heavy backpacks and suitcases through the rush of the Chinese working ants pushing against us. After a lot of slotting through gaps in the crowd and dodging oncoming human traffic, Richard had directed us to our connecting Subway train, taking us to a street nearby to our next hotel.
Something to bear in mind if you ever decide to visit a Chinese city; although kept immaculately clean, Chinese subway trains are extremely cramped. If you don’t find a spot that provides some form of grip or handle for you to grab on to, you will have a tough fight with gravity to not tumble into the people surrounding you (especially if you’re carrying an over-sized backpack as well!).
Eventually, having escaped the lack of personal space from the subway train, we were all settled in our new hotel. We didn’t have an ample amount of time to relax however, for after quickly shovelling down our complimentary breakfast, Richard was leading us all out of the door to explore the historical landmarks of Xian.
As he guided us through the snaking streets of the city, I studied all of the people swirling around us. There was space to breathe in Xian, in comparison to Beijing, where it was difficult to find a moment where you could soak in the happenings around you. One of the many things that I have discovered on my travels this past year is that there is beauty burning in everything, including people.
After a short walk in the pleasant warmth of the day, Richard had lead us to the entrance gate of the Xian City Wall. This monstrous monument, was situated in the core of the city, essentially cutting off a small section of Xian from the rest. Also known as the “Fortifications of Xian”, the wall is one of the oldest and most well-preserved walls in Chinese culture. Built under the reign of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang as a military defence system in the 14th Century, the wall cordons off a 14 square mile radius of Xian. Since its original erection, it has been refurbished numerous times, at intervals of around 200 years.
As our necks stretched skywards towards the turrets above us, as Richard handed out our tickets, gaining us entry to the top of the wall. We passed through the walls tunnel arch and up the steep set of steps to the top plate of the wall, providing us with beautiful views of the city engulfing us.
There were various going-ons atop the city wall; tourists snapping photos from every angle, Chinese vendors selling a variety of souvenirs and snacks from their mobile stalls. There was even a Chinese wedding photoshoot taking place, with the bride looking stunning in her crimson silk dress.
It was at this point that the group split in two. Some wanted to explore the city wall and the adjacent urban areas by themselves. Others, including myself, had opted to take a bike ride around the outer edge of the wall.
Riding our rented road bikes along the top of the wall was a lot of fun! Although, the bumpy ride of the rough, uneven cobbled stones and the uncomfortable bike seat did hurt my bottom quite a lot! I also ended up losing a crucial pin that held together the band of my wrist watch, rendering it unwearable. This was particularly upsetting, as it was a treasured gift from Grace before I left. Two small hiccups, but in the grand scheme of the gorgeous weather and even better views, the bike ride was both peaceful and enjoyable.
We took regular breaks at the four corners of the wall, stopping for pictures and a small cultural talk from Richard.
After cycling the full length of the Xian City Wall, we had made it back to our original starting point, ready to meet the rest of the group. We spent some time browsing the markets inside the walls turrets. It was here that I purchased the first addition of my travelling bracelet collection. Shortly after, the rest of the group arrived as Richard lead us out of the city wall, back into the outer circle of Xian’s blueprint.
Next on the checklist of the days exploration was another famous area of Xian; the Muslim Quarter. Not far from the city walls entrance, the Muslim Quarter is where all of Xian’s crowds seemed to congregate. Actually situated inside the city walls, the Quarter is a large enclave constructed with collections of Chinese neighbourhoods. It has become a famous attraction for tourists in recent years for its cultural stamp on the city, as well as its diverse collection of food and souvenirs.
Richard allowed us time to explore the markets of the Muslim Quarter at our own leisure. This boded well with me, as it gave me time to explore at my own pace, photographing the culture trapped inside this small bubble of Chinese life. This was however briefly put on hold with a trip to a local watch repair shop, who were swiftly able to fix my beloved wrist watch for me!
With wrist watch, well, on wrist, I ventured deeper into the crowds of the Muslim Quarter, soaking in the blended aromas of fried eggplant and noodles, warm dumpling dough and deep-fried tarantulas (yep, that’s a thing in China). As the vast array of bright colours quilted together by large stacks of silk blankets seemed to blend into a rainbow of vibrance, I found myself in a small tunnel. The market stools invaded the air, towering above me with uncountable columns of gifts and souvenirs. I ended my experience in the Muslim Quarter by bartering with an old Chinese woman over the price of “Ray-Ban” sunglasses. My bartering halted at 60 yuan, (around 8.50 pounds) which thinking back seemed a little excessive for my flimsy knock off plastic sunglasses.
Satisfied with my collection of photos and experience of the Muslim Quarter, I was soon heading back to the hotel, to relax before the group headed out for dinner in the evening. I did however make a quick stop at a nearby Macdonalds for a quick snack. When I saw the menu, I knew that it was essential for me to try the “black bun” burger that I had seen advertised previously online.
If you’re wondering if it tastes any different to that of a regular Macdonalds bun, it doesn’t. I’m not sure who came up with the idea to turn the bun black (most probably with some form of food dye), but it was a rather pointless venture.
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After spending a short amount of time gathering myself in the hotel, I was back out the door again with a selection of the tour group for a Dumpling Banquet in the Muslim Quarter that Richard had arranged for us.
The restaurant was extremely busy, filled with large round tables that would seat around twelve people each. Every table was full, with not a single empty seat in site. From Chinese families passing around large plates of bite size dumplings, to tour groups not unlike our own clinking beers and sharing laughs. The groups of people seemed to become less and less visible as the steam from our dumpling platters filled the air, blending into the crimson red décor of the restaurants drapes and table clothes.
The Dumpling Banquet was beyond delicious. Throughout the evening, we had a constantly supply of dumplings brought to our table, each with their own unique, scrumptious taste and flavour. While Richard described what we were eating and how the dumplings were made, we knocked back a few beers and laughed away the evening. We were becoming much closer as a group at this stage, causing the conversation to spark in to a cocktail of stories and notions that created a wonderful evening for us all to share together.
With our stomachs filled with copious amounts of dumpling dough, we slowly waddled out of the restaurant into the fresh evening air. If possible, Xian seemed to be even more beautiful to view by night. With the Drum Tower glowing bright in front of us as we left the restaurant, Richard led us down through the square and out into the night, to continue exploring this wonderful city and all it had offer.
Richards late night walking tour of Xian twisted and turned through the dark streets, with the rush of head beams and street lights lighting our path. Leading us around the edges of the city wall, we came across a group of Chinese women taking part in an evening dance class in the centre of the city. Me being me, I was the first of the group to get involved and start dancing along with the group. My dance moves will never be worth talking about, so I soon felt rather showed up next to these older ladies busting a move. It wasn’t long before Richard decided he had seen enough dancing and moved us on to continue exploring.
The problem with being a Photographer, is it can be rather anti-social, especially if you’re not spending your time with other Photographers. While I wanted to stop at various locations for some long exposure nightscapes, Richard wanted us to keep moving. I therefore decided that I was going to split off from the group, so that I could explore and snap away at my own pace. While everyone else marched on with Richard at the head, I strolled around the city, finding the perfect spots for some nightscape city photos.
My final shots of the evening lead me back to the Drum Tower and the starting point of our walking tour. I had my tripod set up by the roadside, capturing a selection of exposures, that were later blended into one image in post editing.
While I was waiting for the shutter to close on one of my last exposures, an intrigued and inquisitive face appeared next to my camera screen, resulting in me nearly jumping out of my skin. “What shutter speed are you using?” asked the young Asian man staring into my live view screen. Ah, a fellow Photographer! The company was welcomed, as I had spent the past few hours wandering around the city on my own. My new friends name was Collin (or so he said it was). He was a professional Photographer too and had spent his evening wandering the streets, capturing the people and their goings on throughout the night. We spent some time discussing the settings I should use to capture the perfect shot of the Drum Tower, before he decided to move on.
I took his leave as a signal that it was time for myself to head home after a long night of successful shooting.
All in all, Xian provided me with some wonderful and memorable moments to reflect on when I reminisce on my time in China. From the expansive views from the top of the city wall, to the array of beautiful lights scattered over the city like fallen stars, Xian will stay with me as one of the most delightful cities that I have ever had the pleasure to visit.