I’ve always loved cycling. Way back when I lived in Canada’s far northwest I had a 21-speed mountain bike and would ride for hours on largely uninhabited gravel roads or on rough forest trails. Living in Vancouver I’d ride the cycle paths along the waterfront, and Don and I would sometimes take the bikes out to Richmond to ride along the dykes there, or on the trails through Pacific Spirit Regional Park.
Then we did the nomadic thing for over five years, which began with selling or giving away everything we owned, including our bikes.
So here I am in Xi’an, about to go on a 14 kilometre (9 mile) ride with the rest of the group I’m travelling with and I haven’t owned a bike for 7 years, and have barely ridden in that time. I did do a little cycling on the stationary bikes at the gym in preparation for the trip, but I really have no idea if I’m capable of this excursion or not.
Climbing a long steep set of stairs we reach the top of the ancient city walls and head to the bike racks. Peter, our guide, says to wait while he gets helmets. We each choose a bike. We’re just trying them out, but that almost immediately morphs into cycling down the broad expanse of the thoroughfare before us. There’s nothing to stop us. We are gone! Helmets? What helmets? Peter returns with an armful of them and we, all eight of us, are nowhere to be found.
I am loving this! It’s like riding a bike; you don’t ever forget!
It is tricky trying to take photographs while riding, but I even manage that.
The fortifications of Xi’an were built about 700 years ago during the Ming dynasty, on the foundation of an earlier city wall, which was built during the three-hundred-year Tang dynasty more than a thousand years ago. This ancient defence system, one of the world’s largest, is rectangular, 12 metres high, 18 metres wide at the base, 15 metres wide at the top, and nearly 14 kilometres long. It is a classic example of the rampart architecture of a feudal society, complete with crenelated parapets, watchtowers, and gate towers.
This is a structure built for the ages. Although it has been fully restored there is still a sense of historical timelessness about it, of millennia of purpose and use. It has faced war, and seen the rise and fall of dynasties, and yet it stands, solid and impenetrable. For centuries, both literally and figuratively, it has defined the city of Xi’an.
But we are thinking none of this as we pedal along. It’s an exhilarating ride. The warm air caresses my face, the bike is excellent, the weather is fine, there’s no traffic, or anything to dodge or avoid.
There is only enjoying the ride taking in views of the city
and of the landscaped park and moat surrounding the wall,
and stopping now and then to peer down, getting glimpses into ordinary life in the streets below.
We pass a Buddhist monastery bedecked with prayer flags,
and at the end of the ride we come to the Yongning International Art Museum, an exquisite example of traditional Chinese architecture.
We return the bikes and then we wait.
There are a couple in the group who really want to see the lights from up on top of the wall. From street level we’ve already seen the towers and crenellations lit up on the previous evening,
but now’s our chance to see them from the top of the wall. We wait and wait. A couple of us start to grumble a little. Dinner is calling, and sitting around waiting for dark starts to lose its appeal.
And then it happens. The red lanterns start glowing,
and suddenly the watchtowers and crenellations are shining with a golden radiance against the darkening sky.
It is a magical moment, and definitely worth waiting for. My grumbling dissolves into the fairyland wonder of it all.
The city is lit up, dressed in its evening finery
and we wander down from the wall past the glowing tunnels beneath it,
and past the ancient Bell Tower
on our way to the Muslim Quarter snack street for dinner where I have a meeting with a skewer of very spicy meat.
The Silk Road is the modern name given to the many trade routes across Asia to Europe that began in the 2nd century BCE and continued for nearly 2000 years. If you look at a map of the Silk Road you will see that every route begins, or ends, at Xi’an. The city is 3000 years old. It was the capital for 1000 years, for 13 dynasties, for 73 emperors. The place is marinated in history and is considered the birthplace of Chinese civilisation. There are ageless pagodas, and the “town clocks” of ancient China: a drum tower and a bell tower.
Intermingled with the reminders of the city’s past, modern Xi’an, with a laid-back cosmopolitan atmosphere, is pigeons in the square,
well-tended flower beds,
shiny modern buildings,
a battalion of apartment buildings to house the twelve million people who live in the metropolitan area,
a tangle of Internet wires to keep everyone in the older parts of the city connected,
and a huge square proclaiming KISSKISS and LOVE with the ancient Drum Tower standing guard over it.
We were in Xi’an so briefly but it turned out to be a highlight that included the incomparable Terracotta Warriors, the exhilarating ride on the city walls, and the renowned Muslim Quarter, home to fifty thousand Hui Muslims, and a direct result of the ancient trade routes.
Next post: Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2019.