I’ve lived in Xi’an for 5 months now; a mere dot in time and yet I’ve already come to feel so surprisingly at home in this beguiling city. Smoggy, strange and stinking, Xi’an has a Chinese charm all of its own that blends these attributes with utter serenity.
Most apparent, is that this is one hell of a noisy place – due mainly to the incessant tooting horns of every single moving vehicle, entirely unnecessarily I might add! Firecracker explosions scare the life out of me at least once a day; sounding more like a collapsing building, apparently it’s tradition here to set them off to mark occasions such as a wedding, birth or the opening of a new business and it really doesn’t matter if that happens to be at 5 a.m. Spitting. Everyone does it. All of the time. And it’s grim. The sound of someone hacking the innards of their lungs up isn’t pleasant at the best of times but the Chinese really put the effort in, which on the plus side, buys enough time to remove yourself from said trajectory.
A city girl myself, I enjoy the chaos. All the senses are engaged here; if it’s not the noise, the smell of street food, oil and spice fill the air. Noodles, soup, hot-pot, corn on the cob, roasted sweet potato, sausages on a stick, steamed buns, squid, chicken feet – you name it – you can buy it fresh from any street vendor at any hour of the day and I absolutely love it! I’ve probably taken more photos of street food than anything else, the locals cooking with nothing more than a wok and gas ring attached to their mopeds is a sight to behold.
At night the city becomes a fluorescent playground. Every building is adorned in glittering lights, the trees are spot-lit, Chinese characters light up every door way and most beautifully the old city wall & surrounding temples and towers glow in all their glory.
For such a bustling city however, there are a surprising amount of oasis’ offering moments of silence and calm. From the tranquil grounds of 2 wild goose pagodas, palace gardens, the Great Mosque, Tang Paradise, Buddhist temples and vast lakes there are stunning serene retreats at every turn. The Chinese really do know how to design a zen outdoor space and I’m grateful for each and every one of them.
Most fascinating for me is seeing how the locals live and becoming accustomed to their daily rituals. Walking backwards being the most curious. That’s a thing here apparently and I’m yet to find out why but it makes me smile on the daily. Early morning ‘exercise’; most elders can be found outside their apartment complex’s swinging from bars, hoisting their legs in the air, throwing their arms around their bodies, hitting their backs against walls or metal poles. It’s really quite funny to watch as it seems an entirely ineffective ritual but interestingly, I am yet to see a single overweight or unhappy looking elderly person. This coming together to perform said routine seems to do the trick – whatever that may be. And of course Tai Chi – you’ll often see locals in their silk pajamas finding their inner calm performing this beautifully graceful ancient art and it’s a joy to see. But it’s the ‘plaza ladies’ I love most – huge groups of women (and sometimes men) dancing together in the street to either traditional Chinese music or hardcore Asian rave tunes! The dancing is elegant and choreographed and is mesmerizing to watch. Community street activities are all the rage here; whether it’s dancing, karaoke, calligraphy painting, card games, badminton, ping-pong, it’s happening everywhere every day and everyone is doing it which is both glorious and inspiring.
Xi’an is a melting pot of traditional vs. modern, chaos vs. calm and it’s the scale of these contradictions that give the city its unique charm. 5 months in and I’m extraordinarily comfortable here, I feel safe and inspired all at once. Do I miss London? Every single day. But would I rather be anywhere else right now? Not for a second.