Weird worship-places of old Xi’an

The day after our visit to the terracotta warriors we finally got around to looking at some of the heritage of Xi’an itself. It’s an interesting city because it played a role in spreading both Islam and Buddhism into China. As such, the major sights are a mosque and a pair of pagodas.

Xi’an was the eastern hub of the silk roads, so its history is closely tied with trade between Europe and China, and places in between, as well as the movement of people and ideas that these ancient trade routes spawned. I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Silk Roads for my bedtime listening of late, and I’ve been fascinated by the parallels that it highlights between modern and ancient concerns about money, power, nationhood and morality. While Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Islam were making their way East along these routes, at the Western edge of the silk roads Seneca was bemoaning the moral degeneration that the arrival of silk from Xi’an was wreaking on Rome:

I can see clothes of silk, if materials that do not hide the body, nor even one’s decency, can be called clothes… wretched flocks of maids labour so that the adulteress may be visible through her thin dress, so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any other outsider or foreigner with his wife’s body.

Perhaps that tells you more about Seneca than anything else. Pliny meanwhile, was more bothered that trade deficit was draining money out of the Roman Empire, which was probably why the Senate eventually banned silk. China, though, viewed all this international trade as a way to bring in income to placate the populace and achieve political stability. Sound familiar? So perhaps the history of the silk roads is really more pragmatic than spiritual.

Actually, there’s a third big sight in Xi’an, and one that is more earthly in nature — the old (but heavily restored) 14 km long city wall, a stone barrier 12 metres high and wide. But walking or biking round this in the freezing cold smog did not appeal, and after our Great Wall hike a few days earlier it seemed a bit of a poor cousin anyway. So instead, after a street food brunch, we start off by venturing into the mosque, which sits hidden behind high walls in the tight-packed alleys of the Muslim quarter.

The mosque’s outer wall. We’ve seen caged birds like this all over Asia, but never anywhere quite so cold.

Inside, the mosque compound was a disorienting mixture of Chinese aesthetic and the architectural features I’ve come to expect from a mosque. Yes, it sort of felt like a mosque, there was the pool, something resembling a minaret, the wide prayer hall, which non-Muslims aren’t permitted to enter. But there also were the giant stone turtles. And the drum-stones.

It was as though you’d walked into an English church yard, and instead of a stone church with pews, an aisle and a pulpit, you found… actually I can’t finish this analogy because due to my bizarre British state-schooling I know more about the key features of a mosque than those of any other religious building.

(Just to be clear, my beef with this is not that we were taught about Islam, but that we were only taught about Islam. The other religions barely got a mention. And then we were given an exam on Christianity, which apparently we were just supposed to know about somehow. Osmosis? Bizarre.)

Anyway it was weird, and interesting. Definitely worth a visit if you like having your pre-conceptions messed with.

Here are some giant stone turtles.

After getting spaced out in the mosque, we headed on to the Little Wild Goose Pagoda. That’s the smaller, cheaper, and more conveniently located of Xi’an’s two famous pagodas. (The other being the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.) Sometimes we’re lazy cheapskates pragmatists.

The pagoda was built in the 8th century, during the Tang dynasty, when Buddhism really started kicking off in China. It was interesting to me because it’s much simpler than the elaborately decorated, deep-eaved structure I think of when you say Chinese pagoda. It felt much more Indian than later pagodas, and it really brought home the fact that Buddhism physically spread across the world from India, bringing its temple architecture with it.

But it was bloody freezing, and none of us were feeling that well, so we didn’t bask in the majesty of the physical manifestation of the history of humankind for too long. Instead we sat on a bench and I ate an overly squishy orange.

This may have been a mistake.

Then we moved on to the Xi’an museum, which being inside, we thought might be warm. Not so much. They’re not that into heating in China.

The main attraction of the museum for non-Chinese speakers is its scale model of the city as it would have looked in its heyday, as the 7th Century capital of the Tang dynasty. Back then, when London was an Anglo-Saxon trading post with a population of a few thousand, Xi’an (then Chang’an) sprawled over 84 square kilometres, and had a population of one million.

It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like living in a city this big, in an age where the only mode of travel for most people was by foot. The city must have been the whole world for some of its inhabitants.

Unfortunately, it takes us about 13 seconds to tire of the model, and the rest of the museum is dark and confusing. Back out into the gathering afternoon cold. We soon end up taking refuge in a mall. When in modern China…

The bitter weather and intense traffic fumes are getting to all of us, or at least that’s how it seems. Nobody is feeling great. So we give up on our increasingly futile sightseeing, and head back to hide in the warm hostel bar until our evening train.

We’re briefly cheered on our walk back to the hostel by a squadron of school children dressed as Santa marching along the other pavement. It’s nearly Christmas, which isn’t celebrated as a holiday here, but is enthusiastically embraced as an opportunity for kitsch. I wish we did this with random holidays in the West.

And that’s it for Xi’an, for us.

On the way to the station to catch our night train to Chongqing, I grab a quick fried sandwich at a less appealing (hygienic?) fried sandwich stall than the one we visited the night before.

This also may have been a mistake.

Can you see where this is going? I couldn’t. But I was about to.

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