Author Benjamin Carlson Photography Jasper James
DAY THREE I awake in a sleek crimson room at the Gran Melia, a chic Sino-Iberian hotel in Qu Jiang New District, a booming zone of parks and malls. I sit at a booth at the hotel’s Red Level lounge, nibbling on a savory rou jia mo, a local pork sandwich sometimes called a “Chinese hamburger.” In the perfumed lobby, a concierge calls me a car. Minutes later, a red-gloved attendant opens the door, and we are off to Xi’an’s premier attraction: the Terracotta Army, located 45 minutes east of the city.
After living several years in China, I have learned to be wary of certain “marquee” tourist sites. Sure enough, the park that surrounds the warriors is jammed with souvenir stalls and selfie sticks. But then, as I step into the hangar-size hall where thousands of terracotta warriors stand uncovered or lie buried in soil, I am overcome.
Dating back to the third century BC, the site consists of three pits containing as many as 8,000 clay soldiers, along with hundreds of statues of horses, scholars, and officials. These are the guardians of the tomb built by (and for) Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first ruler to unify what we now recognize as China, in 221 BC. He created the title of emperor, built the first Great Wall, created national roads, and ordered the construction of a vast city of the dead.
Each warrior has slightly different eyebrows, cheekbones, and proportions. It wasn’t until 1974, when farmers went to dig a well on this land, that anyone even knew these marvels were here. Six thousand soldiers still lie buried. What else lies beneath the surface of this city?
Leaving the pits, I pass a girl with dyed red hair pretending to play mandolin as friends take her picture. A stylish woman pauses to spit in a trash can. I am firmly back in the present.
The lunch options are iffy among the trinket stalls surrounding the site, so I opt for a noodle stand in the lot where cabbies wait for their fares. A man under a sign that says “Farm Family Little Eats” pulls bands of dough into thin noodles. He smiles when I pull up a stool and order a bowl. It’s savory, fortifying, and cheap.
A cab takes me down the road to Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s tomb, which looks like a large, pleasant park, because Chinese archaeologists have been waiting for technology to develop that will allow access to the tomb without damaging its contents. According to legend, the emperor rests amid rivers of mercury. (Probes have confirmed that mercury levels are 100 times the norm.) Above ground, people do normal park things: stroll, snooze, eat. It’s a strange place.
For dinner, I am meeting a guide from Lost Plate, which organizes food tours to tiny shops around the city. The founder, Ruixi Hu, is a transplant from western China. “There are so many travelers in Xi’an who come, and all they do is see the warriors and go back to their hotel,” she says. “They don’t get to experience all the awesome food, which is the best part of the city. So we take people off the beaten path, where locals eat.”
Upon her arrival in Xi’an a little over a year ago, Ruixi bought a map and began exploring, scoring every restaurant she visited on a 10-point scale, compiling a list of ultra-local restaurants worth visiting. “I think I ate at least 50 types of noodle in Xi’an,” she says. “I gained 10 pounds, for sure.”
She sets me up on a tour with one of her guides, a young university student named Lu, who immediately asks if I want a beer from the cooler. I like this guy already. As we putter off to our first stop in a tuk-tuk, I tell him about my visit to the tombs. “The first time I stood in front of the warriors I, like, felt something,” he says. Lu’s English is excellent, and conspicuously Americanized. “Oh, I watch a lot of American shows,” he explains.
The tuk-tuk winds through the alleyways on the fringes of the Muslim Quarter. Our first stop is a shop where gruff, stocky brothers roll out disks of dough and fling them on top of a tall stove. These honey-coated loaves are then stuffed with radish, carrot, egg, cabbage, pickles, and something called “tofu flower,” which is fished from a dark red broth that Lu tells me is
“28 years old.”
“The fire has been going for 28 years. They never let it go out.”
He shrugs. “They say the flavor is better.”
The rest of the evening is a blur of tuk-tuk rides, on-the-go beers, and delicacies from unassuming shops: lamb skewers garnished in cumin and chili; soup dumplings and sweet “eight treasure” porridge with osmanthus, hawthorn, jujube, and lotus seeds; and a finale of spinach noodles served with Ice Peak orange soda (“the Xi’an Fanta,” Lu says).
Our last stop is Xi’an Brewery, a brewpub by the South Gate of the city. The place is supposed to be American-style, but the customers are mostly local, the decor is Shaanxi-themed (masks and redheaded cranes), and games of dice are going at every table. A Chinese house band plays pop standards. A kid at the bar has, for some reason, dyed his hair gray. Owner and brewer Jon Therrian, who hails from Ohio, takes me upstairs to a karaoke room where people are playing cards. I shake the hand of his co-owner, a Xi’an native named Lei.
“My parents’ generation all drank baijiu,” Lei says, referring to a hard grain liquor that’s popular in northern China. “But our generation, we all are ready for something new.”
They serve up a sampling of their wheat beer, seasoned with coriander and orange peel, along with milk stouts and Kölsch, all unpasteurized and unfiltered. “We try to make it in style, but we also try to make it suit local tastes,” Therrian says of his beer, which balances the stronger flavors of foreign beer and the Chinese preference for lower alcohol content. I meet the editor of the monthly English magazine of Xi’an and, suffused with beery warmth, ask him what brought him to the city.
“People say, ‘I came for the culture,’ or ‘I heard the food was amazing’,” he says. “I even had a guy who said, ‘I want to live in a city that starts with X.’ But I had no good reason for coming, and it ended up being a good decision. It sounds lame, but Xi’an has a sense of realness—real China—that people always talk about. It’s charming and in your face. We’re a lot more down and dirty, and that’s cool.”
Cheers to that, I say, taking another swallow of stout tailored to suit the traditional tastes of the local population, which seems a fitting way to end the day.
Beijing-based writer Ben Carlson has devised a 78-stroke character to describe the feeling of having a piece of biang biang stuck in one’s tooth.