ZhāngJiāJiè and Wulingyuan National Park, China

This blog covers the final part of a four-city trip which Matt and I took with my parents earlier this year, starting in Shanghai then in turn visiting Beijing, Pingyao, Xi’an and Zhangjiajie. I’m a bit embarrassed that it’s taken me 5 months to complete this series of blogs, but time runs away with you in this tenacious city (especially when you spend most of that time at work!). Actually, we’re creeping up to to the mid-point of our 3-year work assignment which is at the end of October… a significant milestone. I’ve suggested Matt writes a blog on ‘What we’ve learnt in these 18 months’ but he seems to prefer writing about intestines and feet so maybe I’ll do that one.

So, Zhāngjiājiè ( 张家界)On a recognition spectrum whereby Beijing is 10 and Pingyao is 1,  I would guess that this prefecture-level city in Húnán Province sits somewhere around 4. Every Chinese person I’ve spoken to knows of it (or at least they do once we’ve gotten past the total confusion of them trying to decipher ‘Zhangjiajie’ once it’s been through the mangle that is my best tonal mandarin), and many have been there. British people on the other hand will have likely never heard of it. Case in point: my parents, when I told them that it would be the fourth stop on our China tour.

Zhangjiajie is around 12,000km as the crow flies west from Shanghai. When visiting this area, you can choose to stay in Zhangjiajie city itself, or inside/close to the Wulingyuan National Park (which, fyi, is what people are actually referring to when they talk about going to Zhangjiajie). We decided on the latter.

No.5 Valley Inn

Nestled deep in the mountains and only 2km from the entrance to the Wulingyuan park, to reach the No.5 Valley Inn we faced a 50 minute off-road car ride from the airport. Uncomfortable: yes. Scary: a little (especially as it was dark). Worth the bruises and residual carsickness: absolutely!

In the light of the next morning, we discovered that the Inn is actually a number of individual wood-and-stone buildings varying in size which are clustered around a central hub housing the bar and reception. We stayed in the building below, which had a number of private bedrooms over two floors and a communal living space-come-dining area, looked after by a dedicated ayi (housemaid/ cook).

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After 9 days traversing Beijing, Pingyao and Xian, absorbing all the commanding history and arresting architecture that China could offer us (invariably in the company of teeming crowds of fellow tourists), the clean and quiet surroundings of No5 Valley Inn had an almost tranquilizing effect. In fact, while Matt and my parents ventured out to explore, I spent the morning dozing in bed, drinking herbal tea and feeling generally contented!

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In addition to the larger communal buildings there were also some private lodges, a KTV bar and an outdoor swimming pool. Venturing a little further in the grounds, we came across a wooden walkway which wound down the hillside, cutting through green terraced fields, muddy ponds and fields of tiny yellow and pink flowers: it was pretty magical.

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One other thing I really enjoyed about staying here was the evening meals. As I mentioned earlier, each residence had a dedicated ayi who rustled up a delicious dinner made from fresh locally-grown produce, for anyone who happened to be around in the evening. We were served rustic Hunanese food, though with the chilli and offal toned down a bit for our foreign palates! Each night was different, but usually we had a selection of preserved pork, beef, goose or tofu, cooked in the local style (spicy and salty), with a variety of local fresh vegetable dishes such as lotus root, eggplant etc. All washed down with a potent home-made rice wine which ensured the conversation flowed between strangers who soon became friends.

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The white and blue bottle you can see on the table, we had bought in Xi’an. It was a kind of flower-rice-wine and was delicious! On this evening we were joined by a couple from America who were great company!
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The ayi in our building was very impressed with Matt’s efforts to speak Chinese – aided by translation apps they were chatting for ages and the other ayis all joined in!

Okay, I think I’ve confessed my love for this place enough(!). Moving on to the real reason we came to visit Zhangjiajie…

Wulingyuan National Park

A quick online search for the ‘must-see’ attractions in Zhangjiajie will tell you there are three big ones: Wulingyuan National Park, Tianmen Mountain the Grand Canyon Glass Bridge. A word of warning here… these are not exactly in close proximity to each other! and so we only ticked off one out of the three (Wulingyuan) while we were there.

A 4-day pass to the park costs 248 rmb (around £28) and includes internal shuttle bus rides (hop-on-hop-off) throughout the park. These buses are essential given there is a lot of park to cover; 690 square km of forest, rivers, valleys, pathways and caves, not to mention some 243 peaks and over 3000 craggy quartz-sandstone towers, which have formed over the last 380 million years, each one wonderfully unique. Matt and I found the park so big that – even with a map – it was all too easy to hop on a bus and find yourself literally miles in the wrong direction! This could be a bit frustrating given that there weren’t many English signs and even less English speakers, but luckily we always managed to find our way back to the start point!

At certain times of year, the damp and humid climate cloaks the mountains in a dense mist, which is certainly beautiful (and has inspired Chinese artists for centuries) but it did make taking photos a challenge (I have lots of photos of cloud!). I’ve included some of my favourites below, but they don’t really do it justice; if you search online for Zhangjiajie you’ll see the landscape in other seasons.

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Precipitous tree-topped peaks, shrouded in infamous Zhangjiajie mist.

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If the tree-topped sandstone pillars look familiar, it might be because they inspired the vertiginously suspended forest landscape of the fictional moon ‘Pandora’, from the 2009 sci-fi movie Avatar:

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The floating ‘Hallelujah Mountains’ in Avatar were inspired by the Heavenly Pillar peaks in the Wulingyuan National Park (above image courtesy of Pinterest.com) and some of the film was shot in this location. FYI, we didn’t see any dragons or blue people.

If you have been following the blog for a while, you may remember that when Matt and I visited Shangri-La last year we discovered that the city was originally called something along the lines of ‘Middle Yak Meadow’ (in Chinese, obviously), and was only given it’s new, decidedly more exotic name in 2001 to promote tourism. The same thing happened to Zhangjiajie, which was known as Dayong (大庸) until 1994, when the name was changed to give it more prominence befitting it’s recently acquired UNESCO protected status. Likewise, some of the mountains have been renamed since James Cameron’s film, to reflect the names of the Pandora region.

The Padlock Zone (“For Longevity”)

Today more than 20 million visitors come to Zhangjiajie each year to see the famous Avatar mountains, therefore crowds were inevitable (mainly Chinese tourists, in loud and conspicuous organised tour groups). Unsurprisingly, the area dedicated to tying bright red ribbons around the trees and latching golden padlocks to the fencing was particularly popular… for longevity,  you understand.

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“Tourism Etiquette Rules for Chinese Citizens”

The huge numbers of tourists have apparently prompted the park’s Lǎobǎn (bosses) to sit down and consider what exemplary tourist behaviour looks like, and subsequently engrave a set of guidelines into a large, stone sign at one of the busier park attractions. Matt and I stumbled across this, and must have stood there for 10 minutes reading every line (it took a while, what with all the giggling). We couldn’t get all of its magnificence into a single photo so I’ve transcribed it here. This is honestly one of the best thing’s i’ve read in China in my life:

The cultivation of a congenial and harmonious travel environment benefits every tourist. It is our bounden to be a tourist with refined manners! So please observe the following tourism etiquette rules:

  1. Keep the environment clean and tidy. Don’t spit about or spit out chewing gum. Don’t drop litter. don’t smoke except in designated areas.
  2. Observe public order. Don’t yell or shout out loud. Always join a public queue for good order. Don’t walk abreast on a sidewalk. Don’t talk loudly in public.
  3. Preserve the ecological environment. Stay off public lawns and refrain from picking flowers or fruits. Don’t chase, catch or throw stones at animals or feed them irresponsibly.
  4. Protect historical sites and cultural relics. Don’t inscribe anything or scrawl graffiti on them. Don’t touch or climb on top of ancient relics and heed the restrictions when taking photos of them.
  5. Be careful with the use of public facilities. Don’t smear or break objects in hotel rooms. Don’t vandalize or damage public facilities. Don’t attempt to make off with public belongings. Conserve water and electricity by using them effectively and don’t waste food.
  6. Be respectful to the people around you. Don’t try to snapshot pictures of foreign friends without their permission. Don’t sneeze into the face of others. Don’t occupay public facilities for long. Esteem the work of service staff. And respect the local religious customs.
  7. Show courtesy to others. Be dressed appropriately. Don’t go barebacked in public places. Be considerate towards the aged, the infirm, the sick and the disabled and give priority to them. Be chivalrous to the female by following the rule “lady first”. Never use vulgar language.
  8. Take part in healthy environments. Say no to feudal superstitious activities. Stay away from pornography, gambling and drugs.

Told you. Brilliant! We didn’t see anyone else reading the sign so you do wonder at it’s efficacy… however, during our time in the park I can confirm that no-one sneezed in my face or threw stones at animals, so maybe it’s having an effect.

Speaking of animals, the park is home to hundreds of protected macaque monkeys who were bold enough to get quite close. I’m guessing that some less than joyful interactions with between over-curious visitors/monkeys were behind the large signs exclaiming: “Wild monkey infesting area, Caution! Do not tease feeding the monkeys”

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Wild macaque monkey

The Golden Whip Stream

On our last day in Zhangjiajie, Matt and I took a walk along the Golden Whip Stream. I think we were incredibly lucky – the weather was damp and drizzly so we had the place largely to ourselves. The stream meanders through verdant forest, polishing the bed of stones and rocky boulders as it flows towards the Li river. We walked for miles and miles, only stopping to buy snacks from some of the vendors which crop up en-route.

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A bridge over the Golden Whip Stream. And Matt.

Despite the muggy weather, I did get a few cool shots and I’m particularly proud of the series below, taken along the Golden Whip Stream. The almost-bare branches of overhead trees against the murky fog took me back to biology class, in their eerie resemblance to the internal structures of the lung; the remaining leaves like the alveoli at the ends of the respiratory tree.

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“Take the Bailong Lift, for viewing the Forty-Eight General Rocks”

We had read about the Bailong elevator – a glass lift built into the mountain with a vertical elevation of 335m – before our trip to Zhangjiajie, and planned to give it a go as apparently the views going up are spectacular and you can walk along the ridge of the mountain at the top. However, you can see from the photo below that we wouldn’t have seen much! The same applied to several of the other higher attractions (such as a McDonald’s at the top of one of the mountains); in cloudy weather we were better off staying at ground level and enjoying the atmosphere.

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Huangshi Village

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Despite having spent a couple of days exploring the mountain area, in the end, we didn’t climb Mount Huangshizhai or reach Mount Huangshi Village. Unfortunately for us, it seems that in neglecting to do so means that we have not visited Zhangjiajie after all… at least if the signs around the park (copied below) are to be believed! So, maybe rely on another blog when planning your visit?

“He who fails to climb on Mount Huangshizhai need not have come to Zhangjiajie”

“Not getting to Mount Huangshi Village means not having really been to Zhangjiajie”

“It is no avail of your trip to Zhangjiajie, unless you come to the summit of Mount Huangshi Village”

– Emma

WTF. What the foot?

Hi. It’s Matt, hopefully you remember me. I’ve been very inactive blogging for a while. Here are my excuses:

  1. I’ve been painting a lot. I hit a decent vein of ‘form’ with some paintings. So I’ve spent quite a lot of time working on that. If i feel creative, I have to prioritise painting over blogging. Sorry blogging.
  2. It’s harder to find weird. When I first arrived everything was weird. “Hey, wow, you can get beef flavoured sweets! Hey, wow, ‘duck bits’ are a more popular snack than crisps! Hey, wow, you can get preserved eggs for breakfast that look like the jellified black translucent output of a zombie chicken”. Now, the ‘once-weird’ is just my normal diet. When I’m peckish, no longer do I reach for a packet of crisps, i like packets of dried seaweed. Rather than toffee I eat tofu. Rather than gummi bears I eat bear gums. (I may have made up the last one). Anyway, this means my frame of reference has been normalised, so it’s hard for me to find noteworthy topics. I liken my quandry to that of a person from Sunderland who was brought up on our local delicacy of chips – with our recommended daily intake of fruit and veg usually being provided by squirtings of tomato ketchup. One day, I discover some mavericks covering their chips in cheese and red sauce. What!!?? No way! Now, I find this incredible and begin to regularly add cheese to my chips and ketchup. One year, I somehow end up in the bohemian town of Middlesbrough. Middlesbrough is about 20 minutes south of Sunderland (therefore 20 minutes closer to Vienna), so the chip chefs invented a fusion dish called ‘Parmoe’
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    Parmo. The north-east UK’s interpretation of Chicken Parmeggiana, whereby you take Chicken, cheese and then replace all of the other ingredients with chips. Best served in a heap on a polystyrene plate, even when (as in this picture) proper crockery is available.

    which is chips, topped with cheese (like in Sunderland) but then doused in bechamel sauce (white sauce), and deep fried chicken schnitzel.  The Sunderland native, seconded to the peculiar and alien world of Middlesbrough, would invariably be thrilled with his exciting new discovery, and amaze his mates back home with tales of this weird ‘white stuff’ all over his familiar chip bed. He would relish as his friends struggled to even comprehend this discovery: “Ah man, that’s not natural like.* The chemicals at that factory** must have turned the tomatoes white for them to get that weird sauce out of them”. However, over time he would find he actually preferred white sauce with the cheese and schnitzel, and though unhealthy, he would grow used to the variety of flavours as his palate developed, even preferring these new styles. The point being, it becomes harder to blog about weird stuff when you no longer see it as weird.

  3. I got too self indulgent. I tended to spend far too long on irrelevant and meandering preambles to the real content of my blog. Usually this felt like I would be shoehorning something extraneous into the blog, just to pad it out and disguise the fact that I don’t have the dilligence to do proper research, or the talent to do proper food reviews.

*I know we have readers from many different countries now, so this is a very soft representation of a north east accent. If you want to hear what a north east accent sounds like, watch an episode of Byker Grove or Geordie Shore.

**Middlesbrough was famous for having a large chemical factory which you could see clearly if you drove north up the A96.

Anyway, fortunately i’ve no more need of such excuses, and i’ve eaten some new things to talk about. So let’s get on with it:

Chicken feet

The first time I ate chicken feet was in Birmingham. Em and I were presented with a plate of of 6-or-so; thin, bony, sad looking things laid out submissively and covered in a sweet gloop. They aren’t easy things to look at and subsequently eat; of all the bits of chicken, they’re probably the most anthropomorphic, resembling as they do tiny distorted, tortured hands. Once you get past all the unpleasantness of that, you remember that the knobbly thick skin can only be the foot coating of an animal that hasn’t yet evolved to develop and wear comfortable shoes.

Having once again done zero research,  I was a little surprised to find that there was no actual meat content. I’d expected them to be a little bit like chicken wings. Bony, but with little sections of tasty meat that you can search for and gleefully excavate as part of a meaty treasure hunt. Not so. The stuff you eat is just the thick skin. I found it a little bit like trying to eat a thick washing up glove that was wrapped around a bunch of broken Ikea pencils. So I reasoned that maybe the idea was that the bit you’re meant to eat was the sauce. The foot is to the sauce what a wooden stick is to an ice lolly, if you will. The sauce wasn’t great (like coagulated Irn Bru), so we just left it and enjoyed the rest of our Dim Sum.

While I sat there thinking that this was one of the most needless and wasteful food vehicles I’d had since the fruit corner yoghurt, I couldn’t escape the feeling that i’d missed the point. After all, they aren’t a cliche; people really do eat them.

The second time I ate them, in a hotel near Changshu, China, they’d been soaked in a spicy vinegar so had a bit of a kick. This helped as the taste was enough to keep me interested and I had a colleague with me who could explain how to eat them properly.

My colleague explained that the thick skin occurs in clumps around the joints of the foot, while in the ball of the foot is the ‘best bit’ – the thickest bit of skin, as well as some translucent white stuff that is a combination of fat, tendons and gelatin. The skin is actually a lot like slightly undercooked pasta, and the ‘best bit’ was like eating a tiny fatty dumpling.

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This Chicken met it’s demise as it was attempting a Mr. Spock salute from Star Trek. Deserved.

I prefer it to the chicken skin you get on a breast, thigh or wing. The last 18 months in China has made me much more comfortable with eating things like skin and tendons, so the second time I actually enjoyed them a lot more than the first.

Apparently it’s common to pair chicken feet with a beer. Because a foot has a lot of bones in it, eating these can be quite fiddly, so people like to eat them as conversational foods to give them something interesting and complicated to nibble on while drinking a beer and to give them a welcome excuse to dip in and out of boring conversation. Like Pistachio nuts or a Kinder egg.

Verdict: Better on second tasting, not entirely unpleasant and i’d eat them if they were put in front of me – but there’d have to be something seriously wrong with the rest of the menu for me to order them. Perhaps best tried at a buffet.

Pig feet

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Pig feet. Good for your skin, but not much else.

I love pork in China. It’s comfortably the most commonly consumed meat. While I was in the UK, most of my encounters with pork were either as bacon or slices of dried out pork shoulder at a Sunday carvery (slightly re-hydrated by smearing it with sweet apple sauce). In China, it turns up in everything (even deserts and sweets) and although often quite fatty, is almost always delicious. Some of the appeal seems to be the fat in pork, which serves two purposes that make it well suited to Chinese diets.

1. Fat is an energy source, which takes on a greater significance when you consider that there are many people here who’ve lived through less plentiful times.

2. Fat is soft. I don’t yet know why (maybe it’s that dental care is expensive), but many people like soft foods that are easy to eat without chewing, so anything that melts in the mouth is a good thing.

One lunchtime I was late to the table at a Taiwanese restaurant with my team and as I sat down they announced that they’d already ordered a healthy meal: Bitter melon and pork belly soup, deep fried pork ribs with sticky orange sauce, some sauteed greens and 4 pig feet. My face obviously communicated that I needed an explanation of ‘healthy’…

My team: “The bitter melon is good for your digestion. Greens have lots of vitamins. The ribs are good because they have bone in.”

Me: “What about the pigs trotters? Are they just like chicken feet but with way more fat and skin and bone in them?”

My team: “Yes. Ladies like them. They are good for your skin”

Me: “OK.”

I decided that as they would be cooked Taiwanese style (usually a tasty combination of various sauces such as sesame oil, honey, rice wine) then would give them a go.

It turned out that I was right about the feet. They’re like a bigger version of chicken’s feet, albeit less scrawny and taste like pig rather than chicken. I didn’t like the skin, as it was far too rubbery in the way it’d been cooked and also highly fatty. Apparently the bit the ladies like (for skin purposes) is a bit of connective tissue in the middle of the trotter. If you imagine the trotter as a giant piggy whelk, and you aren’t eating the shell, but poking around with a toothpick for a mollusc inside the shell, that’s the basic idea (this tissue part actually tasted ok). The others were quite happy to chomp away on some of the gelatin too, but I prefer my gelatin in wine gum format.

 

Lamb feet

Emma’s blogged about the food in Xi’an. It is great, especially if you like lamb. We had many delicious meals here and on our last night we went to a place to try and revisit some of our favourites.

Fortunately, unlike many restaurants in Xi’an, they had an English menu.

Unfortunately, the English menu was about as helpful as the norovirus. It read:

  • Lamb – 25 RMB
  • Lamb – 30/52 RMB
  • Lamb – 20 RMB
  • Lamb (Spicy) – 18 RMB
  • Lamb – 30RMB
  • Sprite – 8 RMB

It reminded me of the classic Monty Python sketch:

 

  • “Egg and Bacon”
  • “Egg, Sausage and Bacon”
  • “Egg and Lamb”
  • “Egg, Bacon and Lamb”
  • “Egg, Bacon, Sausage and Lamb”
  • “Lamb, Bacon, Sausage and Lamb”
  • “Lamb, Egg, Lamb, Lamb, Bacon and Lamb”
  • “Lamb, Lamb, Lamb, Egg and Lamb”
  • “Lamb, Lamb, Lamb, Lamb, Lamb, Lamb, Baked Beans, Lamb, Lamb, Lamb and Lamb”
  • “or Lobster Thermidor au Crevette with a Mornay sauce garnished with truffle pate, brandy and a fried egg on top and lamb”

Like the man in that skit, we quite like Lamb, so we played lamb roulette and pointed out few dishes.

The first thing to arrive was lamb kidneys skewered on a twig and covered in spices. Liked these a lot. Second, Jackpot, we got the delicious lamb & bread broth that Emma wrote about. Then came twig skewered chunks of succulent barbecued lamb meat. 3 wins out of 3. I was on a roll, eagerly awaiting the 4th success….

Then we got a plate of lamb feet.

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This is one of the only meals I’ve ever had that looks like someone else had already finished it.

I never knew lamb feet were a thing. Of course I know lamb have feet (they aren’t snakes) but I didn’t expect them to be a meal choice for humans at a relatively nice-looking restaurant. It felt a little bit like we’d been served the sub-prime mortgage derivative of the barbecue world – this restaurant had figured out a way to disguise a valueless byproduct of real food by covering it in sauce and sesame seeds, making the menu unclear, then selling it to unsuspecting consumers.

The good bit about lamb feet (compared to chicken and pig) is that there is a bit of lamb flavour to it. That’s pretty much it though, the rest of it is just tough skin, fat, gristle and gristly skin fat. On a stick. If you want lamb flavour, just get some lamb. I don’t know how much the feet were, but everything else was a better option. These were comfortably the worst feet of the three, with pig second. Having written this blog in this order and not bothered to edit it, I’ve now become nostalgic for the chicken feet by comparison and i’ll more than likely eat them again.

To close this blog, I thought i’d try something different and write a little poem.

Ah how I respect the noble foot or, plural, feet.

Designed to stop our legs from scraping along the street.

Of all the body parts the most discreet,

No matter how much abuse and how much we mistreat

They support us, daily, never missing a beat.

Yes I do respect them; but without deceit

I never thought i’d eat.

Feet.

As a treat.

There’s just so little meat.

My meal is not complete.

I have tasted de-feet.

 

Xī’ān-tics

When planning a visit to China, before you even pick up a guidebook, I imagine there are 3 or 4 attractions on your ‘must visit’ list; those places of cultural and historical significance that are so familiar that you almost feel you’ve been! I bet the Terracotta Army is pretty high up on that list, right? And it’s the ‘Terracotta Army’, you think of when you hear ‘Xī’ān’?

Xī’ān (西安) – the capital of Shaanxi province – is a place so inextricably linked with Emperor Qin ShiHuang’s subterranian Army of Warriors that I’d never actually considered the city in it’s own right, that is, until I arrived there earlier this year and discovered that there was much more to Xī’ān than first meets the eye.

A developing city

It was late on a Monday evening when our train arrived into Xī’ān, but the subway was still running so we clambered aboard and got off at a stop close to the Bell Tower, which was then a 10 minute walk to our hotel.

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Xī’ān Bell Tower at night

At the time of our visit (April 2017) there were only two subway lines in full operation, bisecting the city from North to South and East to West. However, a further 5 were under construction (part of Line 3 opened to the public in November 2016), and plans show that there will be 17 lines by 2030. This subway strategy paints a clear picture of how Xī’ān, along with many of China’s thriving Tier 2 cities*, is lunging from the ancient into the modern world at breakneck speed.

The same pace of development is apparent above-ground in the myriad of modern buildings and lively leisure and retail areas (our hotel, for example, was the epitome of modern; clean lines, mood lighting and an oversized lobby), yet evidence of ancient Xī’ān still surrounds (literally) the city; the Ming-Era architecture and dynastic elements clearly surviving in the face of creeping modernity.

Xī’ān is said to be one of the birthplaces of ancient Chinese civilisation; then known as Cháng’ān, meaning ‘eternal city’. It was the Eastern terminus of the Silk Road (a network of trade routes established during the Han Dynasty linking regions of the ancient world – from China to Europe – in commerce) and was crowned as the cultural and political capital city during some of the most important important dynasties during China’s history.

* This website has the best explanation of China’s tiered city system that I have come across.

Day 1: Xī’ān City Walls

Built over 600 years ago to protect the city (and it’s merchants and money!), Xī’ān’s rectangular city walls (西安城墙) remain intact, stretching 13.7km around the city centre. Along the top of the wall is a wide stone-paved walkway and if you like you can walk the entire circumference. You can also rent a bike near the South Gate, which is probably a better idea if you want to go the whole way around – it’s quite a way! We walked for about an hour before getting hungry and heading off to find some lunch.

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The hazy atmosphere obscured the horizon in every direction, which in a surreal way seemed to enhance the colours and features at the point where I stood – particularly the pops of bright red; fluttering flags, classic lanterns, and the blooming full skirt of a wedding dress. The houses and buildings which bordered the wall were beautiful; very traditional and elegant.

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The Muslim Quarter & Bei Yuan Men Street

Warning: don't read this if you're hungry!

During my research for our trip I came across a blogger who had written a three-part ‘Gourmet Guide to Xī’ān’, describing in detail his favourite street-foods and where to find them. His blog warned that some of the food, however delicious, could be challenging for Westerners due to the lack of English (or even pinyin) signage and menus, and so helpfully included step-by-step guides of how to order and eat the dishes. The more I read the more excited I became about this sublime clash of Chinese and Middle Eastern cuisine, cooked and served up on the side of the street. I started to obsess over one dish in particular; Yang Rou Pao Mo (羊肉泡馍) – a steaming hot mutton broth ladled over hand-crumbled unleavened bread. Our lunch target was set.

Entering BeiYuanMen street was a fairground for the senses! Hungry crowds hustled and bustled past street stalls and restaurants which steamed, sizzled and hissed, releasing mouth-watering aromas of char-grilled lamb, freshly baked bread and earthy spices. Large signs painted red or blue brandished orderly rows of Chinese characters, which we had no chance to understand; however, we soon came across a friendly-looking place boasting row upon row of skewered meats ready for the grill; after a quick check that they served Pao Mo, we took a seat inside.

Thanks to the blog I mentioned earlier, when the fúwùyuán (waiter) presented me with an empty bowl and a piece of hard dry white bread, I didn’t start sobbing like a hungry Dickensian workhouse orphan. Instead, I crumbled the piece of bread into my bowl like a pro (harder than it sounds by the way!) and handed it back to our fúwùyuán who submerged it in a clear broth which contained the lamb, veggies, and glass noodles. Soaked in the broth, the bread transformed into little gnocchi-like dough balls – just the right side of chewy – which we ate with sweet pickled garlic and spicy chilli paste.

In addition to the Pao Mo we ordered a few BBQ lamb skewers marinated in cumin and chilli, crisp, a slightly chewy disc of bread and some cartons of plum juice to wash it down (pics below).

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The Muslim quarter has two main streets which together form an ‘L’ shape, and splinter off into a myriad of smaller interconnected alleyways which are dominated by street-food or souvenir vendors. It would guess it takes around an hour to meander up and down the main streets (hard to say exactly, what with all the stopping to eat!), but you could easily spend the best part of a day wandering around this place, cursing the feeble and finite capacity of your stomach.

After gorging on Yang Rou Pao Mo I was well and truly stuffed, so had to make do with taking photos of the cornucopia of other foods on offer. One of the most popular snacks we came across was Rou Jia Mo (肉夹馍) or ‘Chinese burger’: slow-cooked mutton or lamb stuffed into a fluffy wheat pitta and slathered with spicy gravy… if you want to get your hands on one of these, be prepared to queue!

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A special shout-out to the drinkable yoghurt, which you slurp through a straw – yum.

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Wandering past the food stalls in the Muslim Quarter, tasting things here and there, I felt a strong sense of contentment, similar to that which I felt at the Mercato San Lorenzo in Florence and La Boqueria in Barcelona. Despite the throngs of tourists, these places manage to maintain an authentic character and true passion for good food. You seriously can’t beat it.

Some more pics below; I love the ones of my mum absorbed into the crowd. And see if you can spot Matt!

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The Great Mosque of Xī’ān

After lunch we decided to take a look around the Great Mosque (西安大清真寺), also located in the Muslim Quarter. Originally built in the early Ming Dynasty, the mosque is a walled complex of five interlinked courtyards which is still used as a place of worship by Xī’ān’s Chinese Muslim population. After the chaotic street-food area, the mosque was an delicious pocket of calm – although the fusion of traditional China and the Middle East which we experienced in BeiYuanMen street was also present here, for example in the Chinese and Arabic calligraphy which appears throughout the complex.

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I’m a sucker for cherry blossom, and the blossom trees in the grounds of the mosque with their juicy pink petals were the most beautiful I have ever seen. The bees seemed to agree with me!

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The mosque was our final stop on our first day in Xī’ān, and we then made our way back to the hotel picking up a few souvenirs on the way.

Day 2: That Army

Imagine it’s spring in 1974 and you are a local peasant farmer digging a well deep into the dry suburban earth of your hometown, 40km outside of the city of Xī’ān. Now, imagine your tools hit an object that doesn’t sound or feel like either earth or rock so you carefully excavate around it, feeding your curiosity, until you expose the statue of a life-size soldier, poised for battle in his full armor. Then imagine being told that you’ve uncovered the burial place of Qin ShiHuang, China’s first emperor – one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th Century, later to be classed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. If you weren’t popular with the ladies before, you are now, right?!

The Terracotta Army (兵马俑 – literally: “Soldier-and-horse funerary statues”) are a collection of more than 6,000 life-size clay soldiers, along with numerous horses and chariots, built to protect the tomb of Emperor Qin, and accompany him into the afterlife. The mausoleum remained hidden, interred for more than 2,200 years after his death, until that chance finding just over 40 years ago.

The Museum of the Terracotta Army, constructed around the discovery site, was opened in 1979. We initially planned to DIY the visit and catch a local bus from the city centre to the Museum, but bumped into a tour group in the foyer of our hotel and were seduced by a good price and transfer of responsibility for logistics! So hopped into a mini-bus for the hour-or-so drive. At the Museum our guide distributed headsets so we could hear her over the dense, chattering crowds, then we entered the first pit – a huge airport-hanger style building. As you can see in the picture below, the warriors are arranges in trench-like, underground corridors.

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In addition to the first pit discovered by the farmers, a second pit was found containing cavalry and infantry units and a third containing non-military high-ranking officers and horse-drawn chariots. These latter pits give a sense of how the clay pieces appear when first uncovered; some fully composed and standing upright, others deconstructed, with heads and torsos lay alongside cracked clay horses. Apparently they were all originally painted in vivid colours (evident when new pieces are excavated) however, the exposed colour lasts only a few hours in the atmosphere before fading away.

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The excavation work at the site continues today – a painstaking commitment to uncovering and then carefully piecing parts of the statues back together, like a mammoth jigsaw puzzle.

Historians now believe that some 700,000 workers toiled for nearly three decades on the army and tomb complex, and that many lost their lives in the process. It’s believed that those laborers and artisans who continued to work on the tomb at the time of the Emperor’s death were buried alive with the Terracotta Army, to achieve the emperor’s wish to preserve the secrecy of the tomb’s location (although other sources dispute this, claiming that the clay soldiers were a substitute for actual human sacrifice). If you think about it, there’s a tragic irony in this; due to this spectacularly extravagant and morose tomb accompaniment, this is probably the least secret and most visited burial locations on the planet.

There is loads of info on the Terracotta Army available on the internet, so I’m not going to replicate any more of it here. If you’re interested, some good sites that I’ve come across include the Smithsonian (very detailed) and History.com (shorter article).

Shaking Mr Yang’s hand

On leaving the airport-style hangars which house the warriors, we were led down a commercial street lined with Chinese restaurants, souvenier shops (of course!) and a small building plastered with a large poster exclaiming: ‘Shake the Mr Yang’s Hand!’. We were skeptical at first  – “what?! He sits there all day?! No!” – but it seems that, yes, he really does sit there all day. So we shook his hand – of course.

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I’m assuming that terracotta soldier standing guard behind is a replica…

We spent total less than two days in Xī’ān, and there is a lot more to see if you have more time (I could have spent 2 days in the Muslim Quarter, although I may have needed to buy some larger trousers afterwards!).

The fourth and final stop on our North China tour with my parents was to Zhāngjiājiè in Northwestern Hunan Province – better known as the place that inspired the Hallelujah Mountains in James Cameron’s movie Avatar… blog to come soon!

Emma