Right off the Muslim Street lies the palace complex of a Ming dynasty nobleman, Gao Yue Song, who rose to greatness 400 years ago by placing second in the Confucian imperial examination; a wall plaque at the house celebrates his brilliance as a 12-year-old test taker. We wandered through the tranquil, rambling house, presented as a “scholar’s residence,” with its succession of rooms and courtyards.
The next day, it was time for Xian’s main attraction: the terra-cotta warriors. An hourlong bus ride took us into the countryside, past universities and spas; the area is famous for its natural beauty and healing springs. The Museum of Qin Terra-Cotta Warriors and Horses is laid out as a series of huge buildings, reminiscent of airplane hangars, that extend over the three main trenches where the warriors were excavated after they were discovered in 1974. Pit 1 features thousands of the life-size clay warriors lined up in rows, while Pit 2 has a smaller group, including chariots and horses. In the Pit 3 building, you can get close to individual warriors in glass cases. The museum is, without question, a strange and wonderful place to visit, whether you prefer to reflect upon the vanity of emperors, the skill of the terra-cotta manufacturers — who managed to give the soldiers distinctive personalities — or upon the lives and longings of the peons who fought the imperial wars.
The next day, we had breakfast in the nameless food alley across from our hotel, where one particularly enterprising vendor with a grill built on to a bicycle cart made grilled chicken sandwiches topped with a fried egg and served on buns of puffy white Chinese bread slathered with two kinds of spicy bean sauce.
Then we went in search of an entrance that would take us up on the Xian city walls. Soon we found ourselves wandering through a part of the old city that is lined with stores and stalls selling calligraphy supplies: inks, ink pots, brushes and seals. On the walls, we walked along a piece of the old city circumference, from guardhouse to guardhouse, passing bicycle rental facilities, where more ambitious visitors can circumnavigate the eight-mile distance on two wheels.
Later, we took a taxi to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, a Buddhist temple dating to A.D. 652. The pagoda is surrounded by pavilions with stone carvings, many of them celebrating the journeys of the scholar Xuanzang, a seventh-century Buddhist monk who traveled all over China and then on to India, in search of wisdom and sacred Buddhist texts, which the pagoda was originally built to house. We climbed the interior stairs, up the seven levels, and looked out over the modern city of Xian.
On our last day, we visited the Hanyangling tombs, another lavish imperial burial site, this one from the Han dynasty emperor Liu Qi, who reigned from 156 to 141 B.C., and his Empress Wang. This emperor was again buried with terra-cotta figurines — but they were very different, both in scale and in scope, from the infantry, archers, officers and charioteers who make up the more famous terra-cotta army. For one thing, the figures at the Hanyangling tombs are doll-size, and include serried ranks of miniature sheep and goats and cows and pigs, presumably sent into the afterlife as a food source. In the enormous underground museum, you peer into the dim tomb compartments at groups of human figures or alternatively, at underground herds of livestock.
The emperor’s insistence on eating well underground (he was buried with figurines representing cooks and servants as well as all that meat on the hoof) is well reflected in the food offerings of Xian. We had dinner one night at Tong Sheng, a restaurant devoted to a higher-end version of paomo, and another night at the Xian Hotel, in a vast dining room of somewhat tattered elegance. But the most interesting food is bought — and eaten — outside. Skewers of highly spiced lamb; cold, sour liang ping noodles; ground meat sandwiches, sweet potato fritters; hand-pulled Xian noodles with chile sauce and cilantro; steamed sticky rice on skewers with sweet sauce and peanuts, mutton soup dumplings. There were also nuts and dried fruit; the Muslim Street, in particular, featured store after store with machines sorting walnuts by size, with arrays of dates arranged by value, and vivid orange persimmons available by the box.
On our last morning, when we went out to buy our breakfast sandwiches from the man with the grill on his bicycle cart, he handed me my sandwich and said, “Tomorrow?”
In fact, I could have wished for another couple of days in Xian; there was still so much more to explore in this city that deserves to be more fully seen and tasted.