It’s quite messy, chaotic, under- developed in many ways but you sense a kind of peacefulness, acceptance, tolerance, rather than a disquiet of various groups of people’s circumstances.
I’m staying on a back street with 3 backpacker type hostel/ hotels amidst a local community of hole in the wall eateries: at night small groups sit on squat stools around little tables eating hotpots, the flames casting a cheery and conspiratorial glow, or trays of skewered meat and bowls of dips. Old men sit on their steps and slowly follow you pass by. At the end of the street is a soya milk bar and a number of open air stalls who dip fry a kind of pitta then let you fill it with your choice of veg, tofu or meat, all mixed up with a chilli paste. On the street corners in the heat of the day, unemployed drivers of 3 wheeler cycle trucks laze and doze in their trailers.
The Muslim quarter is over the main road,and this is a totally different kind of China. Xian being the terminus of the Silk Road has historically been the home for traders and other races. The narrow streets are a riot of noise, hubbub, smells, tastes, sights. You are swept along by the calls of the kebab stands trying to entice you in, the rhythmic hammering of young men pounding sesame paste with wooden mallets. The smells are cumin, coriander, pepper. The men wear little white skulls caps, the women headscarves. I have hand squeezed pomegranate juice, a slice of yellow rose flavoured jelly, some spicy twice fried baby potatoes and some fried tofu. You eat on the go and walk and walk, it’s intoxicating.
The Muslim quarter borders on the Bell Tower which is the central landmark here in the ancient city. It’s a Qing dynasty 4 tiered structure with the characteristic pointed gabled roof. At night it’s lit up and is an incandescent red, yellow, blue and very beautiful. Somehow it’s been absorbed into the modern city and now sits isolated from its sister drum tower as a roundabout where 4 busy roads intersect. This roundabout is 6 lanes wide and has an additional fenced off cycle lane. Watching the traffic is engrossing, and I’m glad I’m neither driving nor a passenger at this place. Buses thunder on to the roundabout, in the full knowledge that they are the biggest and that if anything tries to get in their way they will come off the worst. Then there are the modern cars, with drivers demonstrating a directness that suggests an arrogance and aggression. Pity the two wheeled riders, but somehow they all career on without a thought for mortality. Knackered old push bikes with pillion passengers, scooter riders checking their mobiles, mopeds with dogs in the foot wells, families of three including babies on one bike, woefully under-powered electric scooters with tiny wheels struggle to break across 5 lines of traffic. By the way, not a helmet in sight. A couple clatter across on their 3 wheeler bike towing a trailer that serves as their food stall, the cooker still steaming. An old man with a hand cart laden with boxes pushes his way across the road. A three wheeler taxi drives clockwise, that is against the flow, from one road to the next. A guy parks his car for 5 minutes in the outer lane. A mountain biker storms across with nerves of steel, or no nerves at all. Having lights appears arbitrary. Somehow there are no accidents, nor any hesitations or mis calculations that might lead to one. It works. It’s dangerous, scary, but works. There is absolutely no comparison with the UK. How many traffic laws have been broken here?
All this revolves beneath the bell tower, set in an ocean of neon, and curiously less Chinese signage than western: KFC, McDonald’s, Bell Tower Hotel Xian. The surrounding pavements are full of hawkers with trays of those green plastic hair stalks which seem to be de rigeur right now, slices of watermelon, micro SD. Cards. In the subway underpass below the tower alone legged man is selling plastic flower tiaras. There is a square between the two towers with steep steps at the bottom of which play a busking group with guitar and hand drums. Overhead a remote control plane lit with red and blue lights soars, dives spins and skims the tree tops. Makes me think back to the Shoreham disaster. Even though it is small, I’m sure this stunt flier could cause serious injuries if it hit the crowd at these speeds.The video screen that dominates the square plays the trailer to the Minions film and perfume commercials. It’s all beginning to feel like Blade Runner. There are mobile Police vans, which seem to be merely a place for the policemen to hangout and watch videos on their mobiles, rather than a control centre. For a control state, I have to say the police are virtually invisible, and their is no sense on intimidation. Meanwhile passers-by photograph themselves and the tower. Awful photos. Their best smiles. Smiles to themselves. This is how they want to remember themselves.