After bravely buying train tickets in Vietnam, Nanning and Guilin I felt ready to try one more time. It was fortunate I would be leaving Liaoyang to head to Xi’an from the same train station I had arrived at and where I had caught the bus to the Grottoes. I was feeling like a local. It always amazes me that the stations are so large in China, and most cities have more than one! Liaoyang was definitely the easiest station to get to, a mere, if that, 15 minute walk – and only because I was carrying my pack. By this time I was finally down to the fine art of packing. Big pack, day pack, carry things in roll up bag only if necessary. I knew the train to Xi’an would not be a long trip – perhaps five hours tops. Once again I arrived early, this time with my list of departures with train numbers. Although I most likely had time to catch a train leaving in about 15 minutes I chose the next one as I did not want to worry about getting to the departure lounge on time. It is security that slows me down. Each time I depart from a place I have to unbuckle my hip and chest straps, remove my daypack, and sometimes the extra bag I have, fling everything onto the security belt while fending off everyone else in a hurry to get through. Then I have to hitch the pack on again, buckle up, loop my travel pack over my shoulder (plus that extra bag – although empty this time) before finding my gate number – this usually means a precarious ride up an escalator. Well seasoned by now I continue with my stop for coffee at KFC, pull out my book, do some breathing then relax with the knowledge I will not be late for my train. Unlike some people I have seen. I have also become good at requesting a window seat having finally discovered I really do not have to take the first ticket available. The only stop of interest along the route was Huashan, (literal translation – Flower Mountain)a city where many visitors head for the mountains for some rugged climbing. It was shrouded in smog. Not fog or mist. My young friend had left earlier in the day to go there. I would wonder for weeks if he ever made it or had become lost when we did not connect as sort of planned. Typical mothering instinct. (i have since seen him logged into Facebook but have yet to say hello)
Like Nanning and Guilin, the last time I was in Xi’an a subway system was not even a dream – it now has three lines. Unlike Yangshuo, I was provided with excellent directions, get off the train find the appropriate line, get off at specified station, even the exit letter was provided and a landmark. The hostel I had chosen was just around the corner. Perfectly situated for visiting many sites on foot, by bus or metro. One of the first things I noticed about Xi’an, after checking into my very own room – I needed the break from sharing – was how clean the streets were. This was great except for the music that the street cleaning trucks played – ‘it’s a small world after all’ – over and over and over. I kept singing the rest of the line in my head. There were also street cleaners keeping sidewalks swept and garbage cans emptied. First time in China I thought they may have had too many! Then there were the bike shares. All neatly lined up, easily borrowed using an App such as AliPay (we in the West are so far behind in financial technology). Xi’an got this right, wide roads for traffic, separate paths for motorbikes and bikes and great sidewalks for pedestrians. People were constantly hopping on or off bikes that seemed to always be carefully left in assigned spots whenever possible.
I had booked three nights for Xi’an, I ended up staying five. (Having the freedom to make such changes is one of the main reasons I prefer to travel solo, or at least without an attachment to a tour. However, it is always important to know which countries insist on visitors having an exit ticket – which China does.) So what does one do as the afternoon is waning into evening in Xi’an? Dusk descends early. I left my hostel at 3:30 in the afternoon to head towards the Bell and Drum Towers.
These were an easy 20 minute walk, and can most likely be done in 15, or one stop by subway. Of course, since I last visited much around the towers had changed. Immediate access by crossing the road was no longer possible, and an area that had been a simple gathering spot was now built into a very nice lower park with easy access to the Muslim Quarter on the far side of the Drum Tower.
This quarter is often given a bad rap by locals – seems to be a common theme worldwide – which, in my opinion, is uncalled for. Primarily ethnic Hui Muslims live in Xi’an, descendants from ancestors who travelled to what is now China 2000+years ago. Two things stood out for me on this trip, the trees and leaves and it was extremely crowded! My last visit I arrived on a freezing cold, new year day of Spring Festival – so, although many families were out everyone was also trying to keep warm, which meant they were mainly going indoors for food. Which is why anyone goes the Muslim Quarter. The food stalls are what draw visitors and locals.
As Cogsworth says in the animated version of Beauty & the Beast, “Your Dinner.” From that first lamb carcass hanging all the way to the end of the Main Street with smaller stands selling walnuts. It would be easy to over indulge. I arrived at a perfect time, around 4:30, only managing to walk down then up the Main Street. My senses were overwhelmed. Lamb carved for cooking into delectable chunks to then be minced for roujiamo (far better than any hamburger anywhere) right before your eyes. I found one place doing mad business, three young men singing the wonders of their roujiamo while collecting money hand over fist and handing out reusable cards to the ever increasing line of anxious, hungry patrons. This was indeed dinner and show! Of course I chose them. Oh my goodness, food for the gods. The meat melted in my mouth, the ‘bun’ – not quite pita bread and definitely not a bun – was fresh, warm and did not overpower the meat.
Dinner out of the way I carried on to discover another delicacy I had not enjoyed for fifteen years, and to this day I still do not know what it is called! Sliced into thin pieces, much like cake – not Nian Gao (New Year cake) – I have always been under the impression it is a sweet, rather rare for Chinese dishes.
All in all I visited the quarter every day until my last – even then I ate food that had a definite Muslim flavour flare. Perhaps it was the Persian tastes I was fortunate to encounter over two decades. I ate Xi’anese potatoes – like new potatoes, tiny, fried, add a dash of chilli, green onion, insert a couple of short skewers and there is dinner to go; hammered candy – nuts and/or seeds hammered into small bits then mixed with honey or a form of sugar, much like toffee, before being formed into lengths to be cut into bite size pieces and packaged. How anyone manages to buy these to give as gifts is beyond me – I bought a small package and ate all of it by the time I left Xi’an; persimmon doughnuts – yes, more deep frying deliciousness; cold noodles – these ones were rice noodles with, I believe, cilantro and probably spinach mixed in to make them a lovely jade green, then topped with garlic and a light sesame oil. Yogurt in a glass bottle. Rounds of beautifully designed bread, to be broken off and dipped into a bowl of thick, mutton stew. (As I write I am wondering how soon I can return)
On the boulevard of the main road where I was staying, I checked out a huddle of people waiting for slurp worthy dumplings – no words were necessary for the women doling out these golden, hot pockets of deliciousness. Twice Breakfast was provided by a vendor making jianbing (Chinese crepes) which seem to vary slightly from region to region. Of course I had to have youtiao (deep fried pulled dough – better know as churri in the west. Of course I also had to have lamb kebab, as well as spiral, fried potatoes – these days found at various locations throughout the world. I was in gastronomical heaven and managed to keep my blood sugar within normal range! Only once did I decide a sit down dinner, in an actual restaurant, after realizing i really was not getting enough greens. This is often a challenge unless there are pictures or questionable translations. I ended up with chicken with garlic – garlic scapes. As usual far too much to eat in one sitting so i had it packaged up to take back to my room – only to throw it out the following evening after my foray to the inner streets nearby for more delectable choices and to gather supplies for my train trip to Beijing.