Go China - Xian

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Xian’s ancient roots: tradition underpins city’s frenetic race back to glory

There are many glimpses of the distant past in this former capital as it strives to redefine itself on modern terms

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 November, 2016, 10:46am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 November, 2016, 10:46am

Like many cities in China, Xian sits at the crossroads of modernity and tradition. This dichotomy forms the character of this ancient capital, and influences the old customs of the locals as well as the new fads.

Xian’s history and how it influences the people is most evident in the mornings, when the elderly move slowly out into the spreading light and do the things they’ve done for so many years: remove the coverings from a bird cage; head to the park for exercise and a song; light up a long-stemmed pipe; and sip from a cup of hot tea. At times, under the old city walls, or beside the mosque, watching the old men and women can transport a visitor back a thousand years, to the days when Changan, as Xian was once known, was the centre of the eastern world.

A few hours later, the bustle of 21st century China takes over, and intrudes upon a vision of the past. Cars zip to and fro, and crowds begin to assemble around the Drum Tower and the musical fountain beneath the Wild Goose Pagoda in the centre of the city. The pace of an emerging economic powerhouse runs through most of the day, settling down only twice – at noon for the lunch rush, and just before six, when the working men and women clock off and seek their dinner.

Meals, almost never eaten alone, are critical to the fabric of Chinese society. During lunch, thousands of students join the white- and blue-collar employees for noodles, dumplings, or a simple bowl of egg fried rice. Maybe one table will share some mutton stew along with barbecue. The whole city takes the lunch hour to remind themselves of the cuisine of this area: meaty and hearty, and with just enough spice to light up a patron’s eye.

After dinner, when dusk arrives, the first glimmers of the nightlife creep out and give a glimpse of the nightly celebration that takes over Xian when the work day is over, and the clubs and bars throw open their doors. There are more than 60 institutions of higher learning in the area, along with six large economic zones filled with white-collar workers. These two demographics collide in the gorgeous city centre, where lights from the Drum Tower compete with the countless bulbs of the shops and fast-food carts that ply their trade deep into the night around Defu Street.

Outside the universities, young people sit in clumps of six or 10 around piles of beef skewers and discuss classes, maybe drain a few beers, and then head home before the dorms close for the night. When they leave, the white-collar workforce is not far behind, aware of the long day ahead of them, the next morning.

Only the night owls remain, to eat, drink and talk loudly into the small hours, until even they go to bed.

And then, just as the last revellers retreat, there is a hush for maybe an hour. The night sky is just beginning to reveal a few traces of dawn, and the morning mist covers the ancient architecture of this capital reborn. That vision of Changan returns for a moment, until the elderly rouse themselves again, attend to their birds and tea, and walk back out to the parks to see what has changed.