The January air is thick and heavy with pollution in Xi’an. A pale orange mushroom hovers over the city, lights from nearby buildings diffused by the haze. Each breath feels so… unhealthy, dirty. We walk around the Ancient City, visiting the pagoda, the bell tower. It’s too cold and too polluted to stay out long.
We of course visit the Terracotta Army museum. On the way there, our guide gives us the cliff notes of what we’re about to visit, twisting his body in the passenger seat to speak to us so often, I want to politely suggest he sit with us in the back instead.
The terracotta soldiers live up to the hype. But as is often the case in China, the visit is a bit of a letdown. Crowds jostle their way toward the front lines, only to turn their backs on the rows of sculpted bodies – you’d think they’d marvel at them after all the effort – and take selfies. Their faces take up half of the frame; in their photos, the soldiers are an afterthought. The noise rattles around the massive hall like a silver ball pinging across a pinball machine: children crying and shouting and running, tour guides prattling off rehearsed speeches. In China, well… people are simply loud on a default level. Not a criticism but an observation. But still, how great would it be to visit the tomb in the spirit of solemnity, as it deserves?
That same evening we are ready for street food, pollution be damned. Xi’an is known for it. Huiman Street, or the Muslim Quarter, roots back to the Tang Dynasty when central and west Asian Muslims initially came for trade and ended up calling the city their home. The labyrinthian streets unfold with stalls hawking all kinds of skewers – lamb, squid, beef, octopus – all with a bit of a spicy kick. Bowls of hot biangbiang noodles, and bowls of cold liang pi. We know we can’t try them all, so we settle for paomo, a lamb stew with bread chunks. We try roujiamo, a halal take on the hamburger composed of shredded lamb between crispy bread slices. We stuff ourselves with a honey rice cake on a stick and watermelon. The spices and the festive market atmosphere make me strangely sentimental; the impending departure from this boisterous, frenetic country heavy in my chest. It’s at once too much, and not enough.
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