Author Benjamin Carlson Photography Jasper James
DAY ONE In China, power radiates from the center. So, like other Chinese capitals, Xi’an was built outward in rings. Even as it has grown into a city of 8 million, the heart of Xi’an beats inside the huge city walls that enclose an area of about 14 square miles, and the Sofitel Legend People’s Grand Hotel sits at the heart of the heart of it. The building, a 1950s Sino-Russian edifice, has two stately wings extending from a cylindrical tower. It was the first grand hotel in modern China, and it remains an anchor of the downtown, with a theater, museum, and serene garden.
I awake in a sumptuous suite and head to breakfast. My butler, a cheerful young woman named Lizzy, who is dressed in a little black tux with swinging coattails, offers me newspapers in French and English. As I tuck into shaved salami on toast and a red currant Danish, caterers hang garlands of green in the gardens outside in preparation for a wedding party.
But I’m not here to luxuriate. I’m here to plumb the depths of Chinese civilization, starting at the Tangbo Art Museum. My cab driver—husky-voiced, chain-smoking—drops me off in the southeast of the city, outside the walls. On the way there, we pass spectral blocks of unfinished apartments, peddlers hawking cabbages, and a dozen aunties waving their hands over their heads as if they were at a luau.
I’m met at the museum by Lei Ling, a graceful curator in a maroon wool coat. The small museum specializes in folk crafts and traditional arts, much of it from the Shaanxi province around Xi’an. Lei, a native of the city, shows me shadow puppets made of donkey skin and posters bearing Cultural Revolutionary slogans (“Smash 1,000 years of chains!”). I ask her about a set of clay statues depicting a family eating and arguing. Lei explains that they relate to the “Eight Strangenesses of Shaanxi,” which include squatting while eating, marrying locally, shouting opera, and consuming heroic quantities of chili.
She seats me at a long wooden table, picks up a calligraphy brush, and asks me to guess the meaning of an ancient character she draws. Dragon? “No, that’s a woman.” She draws another: a 57-stroke character that takes up a whole sheet, made of elements that mean knife, moon, cart, word, distance, and heart. “You cannot find this in the dictionary,” she says. “This is the most complicated character in Chinese.”
“What does it mean?”
“It’s biang biang, a sort of noodle.”
Lesson over, Lei takes me to meet the owner of the museum: Ren Jie, a 50-something man in a puffy jacket. He welcomes me into his small, smoky office behind the galleries. Cheerful, with a gravelly laugh, he pours pu-erh tea into small ceramic cups. He founded the museum 15 years ago, he says, because of his passion for the traditional arts of Shaanxi province.
“You’ve got to practice the art yourself to understand,” he says. “In the West, people get tattoos using Chinese characters, but they make no sense. Those people have no idea what they mean.” He is also eager to share his advice on food, urging me to load up on lamb soup with hand-torn bread. “Why do we break the bread ourselves? Because that way we have to sit with our friends a long time. You break bread, you talk. Every day it’s like that. That’s the Xi’an lifestyle.”
As I prepare to leave, I ask Ren what else sets Xi’an apart. “Shanghai is a young city compared to us—Beijing too,” he says. “Xi’an, we were the New York of the ancient world. Over a million population in the 8th century.”
Despite my increasingly urgent craving for noodles, I decide on a pre-lunch trip to the Xi’an Museum, located on the grounds of the Little Wild Goose Pagoda, just south of the city walls. I start on the lower level, which displays a huge scale model of 8th century Xi’an (then known as Chang’an), when it was the greatest city in the world. Nearby, next to a display case containing the figures of 12 plump Tang dynasty ladies, a little girl in pink silk robes theatrically recites historical details.
“In the Tang dynasty we were the most advanced and populous country in the world,” the girl says with the poise of a beauty pageant host. “Many foreigners came to trade and learn from us.” She is wearing a sash that says, “Little Explainer.”
From here, I pass through a small park to the Little Wild Goose Pagoda, a 13-story tower of tawny brick with a viewing station at the top. Up here, the contrasts of Xi’an are on vivid display: the candy-cane smokestack, the huge 14th-century Drum and Bell towers in the distance. Below, a vendor sells red slips of paper for visitors to write their wishes on. Hundreds hang from a branch. Mine says: biang biang.
My wish is fulfilled just inside the city walls, near the South Gate, down a winding street of bars. I step into a clean, bustling shop called Lao Wan, or Old Bowl, and tuck into a huge portion of noodles the width of a belt, garnished with green onion, white garlic, bok choy, and ample quantities of that most challenging of the Eight Strangenesses: chili.
To work off a few noodles, I ascend the wall near South Gate. Visitors can rent bikes to wheel around the top of the 14th-century structure; one of the largest and most complete city walls left in China, it runs for eight miles, stands almost 40 feet high, and is wide enough for two trucks to drive side by side. A few minutes in, I stop to watch a group of young men wearing flat caps and girls in denim overalls, all standing completely still. A moment later, in silence, the group breaks into a hip-hop dance routine. As a cameraman walks around filming them, a female bystander remarks to no one in particular, “It’s weird without the music.”
I make my way back to the Sofitel and, after a large Scotch at the lobby bar, head for dinner at the hotel’s Dolce Vita Italian restaurant. I opt for the sea-themed menu: a whirlwind of pan-seared octopus over fluffy potatoes and lasagnette ai frutti di mare, followed by a tiny jar of exquisite tiramisu. Up in my room, I gaze at the bamboo-and-ox-hair brushes hanging over the desk, trying to picture the 57 strokes of biang biang. I don’t get beyond the knife and the moon before I am asleep.