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Xian Street Food – The Glutton Returns

This, my last post from Xi’an, is a loving tribute to all the street foods I ate in and around the Muslim Quarter (Huí Fāng – Muslim Street). Some, like the persimmon cakes, I tried again, possibly more than once (in the interests of trying the different flavours you know), and some are new eats I didn’t get the chance to try on my first epic Glutton’s Journey through the foods of the Muslim quarter. Enjoy.

Stepping through the gateway of the Muslim Quarter is to enter a world that looks, smells and tastes very different to the world outside it. Men in white embroidered skullcaps spill out of mosques as prayers finish, women in headscarves stand gossiping on their way home with the shopping, and old men, in thick-rimmed glasses, sit quietly smoking and watching it all happen. The streets are filled with the steam and charcoal smoke of hundreds of street food stalls, and the scents of cumin, chili, and char-grilled lamb fill the air.

First up is one of Xi’an’s most famous dishes – yáng ròu pào mó 羊肉泡馍 – consisting of a richly fragrant lamb broth, in which the lamb has been cooked with spices for at least 24 hours. The meat pieces, as soft as butter, are placed in the bottom of the soup bowl with noodles and some coriander. Alongside the soup are several bowls of condiments – spiced chopped pickles, and roasted chili and sesame paste you can add to taste. With your soup comes a basket of flatbreads, warm from the oven, which you traditionally tear into small pieces and drop in your soup where they can soak up the meaty goodness of the broth.

Persimmon Cakes – shì zi bĭng 柿子餅 – are one of my all time favourite street foods! The soft ball of orange persimmon dough is filled with a dry mixture of granulated sugar and one of several fillings – black sesame, peanut, rose petal or walnut, then pan-fried until the outside is crisped and the filling melts to a sweet sticky syrup which oozes out when you take a bite.

Peanut cake, and walnut cake – huā shēng gāo 花生糕 and hě tao gāo 核桃 糕 – are delicious flaky sweets made with nuts, sesame paste and sugar, much like halva. It’s interesting to see the influence of the Middle East on foods brought in by the Silk Road.

Fan Ji La Zhi Rou Jia mo – famous Xian rou jia mo restaurant on Zhu Ba Shi, near the Drum Tower
And introducing a new favourite – ròu jiā mó 肉夹馍 – a warm flatbread, stuffed with shreds of slow cooked meat, either pork or lamb, with a slick of gravy. It’s a tender, juicy, roast meat sandwich with loads of rich buttery juices that would run down your arm if it weren’t for the handy greaseproof paper bag. 

This very friendly gentleman is selling thin slices of a glutinous rice cake, coloured with saffron, and flavoured with a syrup made from dates and rosewater. Served cold on a skewer, it’s a surprisingly delicious snack. The gent told me it was hui huā gāo (回花糕) which I took to be literally Muslim flower cake. When I asked our guide Melanie the next day, she thought it was more likely mei huā gāo (糕) – plum blossom cake. Either way, it was the surprise find of the night, because frankly, it doesn’t look like it would be that tasty.

Red dates, known also as jujubes (hóng zăo 棗) are available at every street stall in Xi’an because they’re grown further north in Shaanxi province. They make a lovely little snack as you walk along thinking what to eat next. Whether you pronounce them joo-joo-bees (the way the locals say it) or joojoobs (like the sweet), they taste just like honey, and along with dried whole persimmons and local walnuts, are really popular Xi’an food souvenirs.

You’re not going to believe what these are called – Dragon’s Beard Sweets! (lóng xū táng ). What a great name! Shreds of white floss (just like Persian fairy floss) are cocooned carefully around a centre of finely chopped nuts and black and white sesame seeds. The Dragon’s beard unravels as you bite into them and you have to take care to catch all the yummy bits.

This is a type of chăo miàn – fried noodles – quite different from usual though with the addition of sliced flatbread strips to the beansprouts and noodles, thrown into the streetside wok along with spices and seasonings. The fried bread strips add a lovely chewy texture.

Two flatbreads are spread thinly with a savoury filling (spiced lamb mince, for example) then pressed firmly together and fried on a griddle until crispy, then sliced into easy to eat pieces.

No trip to Xi’an for me is complete without a bringing home a few bags of spiced nuts and broad beans from one of dozens of peanut/broadbean shops. The broadbeans are absolutely delicious, fried until very crispy and then seasoned with salt and spices. And the peanuts? Roasted with industrial grade chilies, they will blow your head off if you try eating a whole handful, so savour them slowly.
Need more about Xi’an? Look here:

Xian: The Abandoned Cave House Village

Can you imagine what it would be like to live in a cave? Tucked away deep into the earth, quiet and cool, and a little dark… There are still many, many people living in caves in China, or working in them, like the papermakers I wrote of last month, and the area around Xi’an is rich with caves – almost all man-made – called yáodòngcarved right out of the soft red-yellow earth of Shaanxi’s Loess plateau – millennia of compressed and striated dust blown in from the Gobi Desert.

Coming into Xi’an by train, I noticed hundreds of cave-houses in the hillsides, and I became fascinated by them. Who wouldn’t want to see a real, live cave house? So I asked our lovely guide Melanie if she could help us see inside some, and to my surprise she told me that her parents, and her husband’s parents all have yáodòngs on their farms, sadly too far from Xi’an to get there and back easily in a day; so she proposed we visit a recently abandoned yáodòng village instead. Melanie explained that they are a common type of dwelling in Shaanxi province, the loess earth is easy to dig, and the lack of other building materials has made them popular dwellings for hundreds of years.
The downside of living in a cave however is the threat of collapse, ever present. In the Shaanxi earthquake of 1556, the deadliest earthquake ever recorded, 830,000 cave dwellers perished when their homes collapsed. I imagine this is now why all the caves appear to be of fairly standard dimensions, four to five metres wide and with an arched roof, this combination giving the maximum stability for height. 

The other downside is that the Xi’an local government has decided that they are either treacherous, or an eyesore, or both, and in the spirit of making everyone’s lives better they have recently begun demolition on an entire yáodòng village outside Xi’an, to make way for a new high class housing development. In the interim, everyone has been moved out of the homes they’ve occupied for some generations, and required to relocate to modern apartments elsewhere, at approximately double the cost of their compensation money. Families were reluctant to leave but had no choice, although I notice a single dwelling still seems occupied, with washing hanging out to dry outside the door.

As we enter the demolition site I don’t know if the occupant is a stalwart resident or the caretaker living on site, but when we approach he comes out to chase us away – Melanie ignores him and we carry on exploring, and he gives us no further trouble once we’re out of sight.

In the village it is clear that the demolition is well underway, and all that remains are the caves themselves and the rubble of what were once courtyards and outdoor dwellings. Amongst the broken bricks lie smashed plates, old shoes, and bits of plastic, discarded remnants of lives left behind.

The cave houses are still fascinating, despite being stripped of almost every last vestige of habitation. The cool smooth walls have been plastered and whitewashed, and here and there a few posters and calenders remain pinned to the walls. The light inside the caves comes from the only opening, giving a soft, muted glow reflected off the reddish earth. Some caves are divided into two separate rooms, perhaps a living area closer to the opening and a sleeping area at the back of the cave.

In a couple of the houses we can see the remains of a kong, an elevated earth bed connected by a flue to the fireplace, by far the warmest place to sit and sleep in wintertime. In another, a tiny alcove within the back wall is now an empty shrine, under the lonely poster of a Taoist god – I’m not sure if it’s Zai Jun the kitchen god, or Cai Shen, the god of prosperity watching now over the empty room.

I wonder how it feels to go from living in a community of cave-dwellers to a high rise apartment, when a cave is all you’ve ever known. I ask Melanie what she thinks.
‘Some of them are happy, particularly the younger ones who wanted to move closer to the city anyway’ she says. ‘But the older people didn’t want to move. They liked it here.’

I can see why. The cave houses have a beautiful, simple quality to them, with their thick earth walls and soft light. Next time I come to Shaanxi, I ask, will she take me to a living yáodòng village? For sure, comes the reply.

Xian: Evening Accomplish Dumplings

Luckily my good friend Dr S. likes Chinese food, and bonus, she likes homestyle Chinese food, street food and dumplings just as much as restaurant food. Having flatted together as Uni students about a hundred years ago, and eaten everywhere from Michelin-starred restaurants in France through to street barbecues I can vouch for the fact that although we’re not sisters, we have pretty much identical-twin culinary DNA. 
For this, my second visit to the Army of the Terracotta Warriors and Dr S.’s first, we have had the good fortune to find an extremely excellent and personable local guide, Melanie, to provide us with more in-depth background and history of the warriors and the Qin Emperor who commissioned them. Last time I visited I found the displays lacked much English translation and my thousand questions went unanswered because our ‘guide’ Andy spent the time gambling away the kickbacks he’d earned by taking us to the Offical Chinese Government Terracotta Warriors Factory Shop. (‘You go in by yourselves!’ he said at the entrance to the Terracotta Warriors. ‘They have many informations in English!’…..this turned out to be partly true. The sign saying ‘Toilets’ and ‘Coffee Shop’ certainly were bilingual).

Aside from being a more committed guide than Andy, Melanie also proved to be something of a major foodie, having previously run a restaurant with her husband before going into the touring business. It’s a long drive from Xi’an to the warriors, so we got to talking about food and before long we were all pretty famished. 
‘Where do you want to eat?’ she asked. ‘Usually I take my clients to a restaurant where they serve some Western dishes, because they don’t like Chinese food…but you guys like to eat Chinese right?’
Yeeesss we do! ‘Just take us where you would eat!’ said Dr S.. Brilliant idea.
And that was how we ended up at Wan Cheng Jiaozi. Jiaozi means dumplings, and Wan Cheng is just the restaurant’s name, but literally translated it means ‘Evening Accomplished’. Good. The restaurant is down a side-street in the small town of Ling Tong (famed for its red-orange Fire Crystal Persimmons), and through a pair of net curtains you enter into a small room with six orange formica tables and a dozen or so plastic stools. There are only three menu items – jiazi, cold dishes, and drinks.
Firstly, and most importantly, are the jiaozi – pork, lamb (given the region’s Islamic influence) or vegetable, all made fresh within the hour, and ordered by weight; secondly, cold dishes – liang cai – these made from a combination of cooked and uncooked ingredients, usually vegetables and tofu. You could call them salads but really they’re more complex and satisfying than a salad, and this restaurant had their four ‘liang cai of the day’ displayed in rectangular tin trays inside a glass cabinet. Lastly the drinks, and here the choices were very spare – warm beer, or warm Ice Mountain orangeade. 
We began with the liang cai – this dish was as delectable as it looks, a spanking fresh combination of vibrant green black-bean sprouts, slivers of red pepper, slices of cucumber and shards of cabbage, flashed in a wok for about three seconds to slightly wilt and soften the vegetables, than cooled and dressed with a chili, soy and vinegar dressing. The vegetables and sprouts had crunch without tasting raw, and the black bean sprouts,  many with their baby black-bean skins still attached, had the taste of freshly shelled peas.
The second was a hearty mixture of finely sliced tofu strips, celery, red peppers, zucchini and cucumber, again with a hot, sour dressing with a touch of sweetness and a lot of garlic.
The jiaozi, plump pillows stuffed full of filling, survived only long enough to be photographed dunked in black vinegar and chili, (top photo) the local way. We wolfed down a plate of lamb jiaozi, spiced lightly with cumin and garlic, and a plate of pork jiaozi with finely chopped lotus root, sweet and crunchy, then finished off with vegetable jiaozi made with leafy greens, garlic and a little egg. I was slightly shocked when Melanie told us we’d eaten one and a half kilograms of dumplings. Our driver, a tall skinny streak of a man, probably ate most of those. One and a half KILOS??
 ‘They were really very good’ said Dr S., as we waddled to the car. Of course they were good. 

Xi’an Tour Guide (and foodie) Melanie 
600 yuan per day (about $100 total price for 1-5 persons) for 8 hours, including minivan, driver and English-speaking guide. She can also book hotels, flights and train tickets, and has great historical knowledge. 

Xian: The Two Thousand Year Old Houseold of Emperor Han Jing Di

Outside the air is warm and dry, and a breeze- carrying red dust and the smell of flowers – blows across the grassy fields nearby as you walk from the harsh sunlight down a long sloping ramp into increasing darkness, and it takes some time for your eyes to adjust as you descend underground into the two thousand year old tomb of Emperor Han Jing Di.

I am back in ancient Xi’an this week, my second visit to the terracotta warriors in less than a year, and yes it does seem like I’ve done nothing but trip around China these last couple of months. Yet another advantage of having a friend visit is that I have an excuse to go travelling again barely two weeks after returning fromy last trip, and to be honest, the allure of Xi’an’s street food was a major pull. Xian’s fame comes justifiably from its terracotta army, but for me, other than the delicious streets of the Muslim Quarter,the place I really looked forward to revisiting was this much quieter mausoleum north of Xi’an.

Where the warriors are certainly large, impressive and imposing, the crowds chattering in eight different languages and shoving you on all sides to get photos can detract from the experience a bit. The terracotta figures in the Tomb of Emperor Han Jing Di on the other hand are small – half life-size – and you can enjoy them quite alone in the dark solitude of this underground museum which far fewer people visit.

As your eyes grow accustomed to the very low light, you realise you are walking on a see-through glass foor, and stretching out under you are nine of the Emperor’s eighty-one burial pits. The pyramid-shaped grave of the Emperor is a smallish hill outside, covered with wild grasses and jujube trees. Not far away lies the smaller grass-covered hill of Empress Wang’s tomb, he in the west, she in the east. Radiating out from each of the pyramid’s four sides, deep underground, lie neatly arranged rows of pits, each representing a department in the Emperor’s household.

Just like Emperor Qin Shi Huang who built an entire replica terracotta army with which to continue waging wars in the afterlife, Emperor Han Jiang Di also created a replica of his household to accompany him, but instead of soldiers there are thousands of fine-featured members of the Imperial household, administrators, advisors, craftsmen, kitchen hands and cooks. Jiang Di was not a warring man, and together with his father their reign is considered one of the golden periods in Chinese history – a time of relative peace and prosperity. 

I now stand above the first pit. It is filled with small doll-like figures, all naked and armless, and they look strangely vulnerable. Once, in the beginning, they had carved wooden arms holding swords, and scrolls, and they wore the elegant and brighty coloured silk robes of the Western Han Dynasty, but time has taken away all but their pale thin terracotta bodies. A face appears out of the dirt with tiny distinct features – a broad forehead, strong nose and small lips sit above an armless torso still buried in the earth.

The next pit contains around a hundred figures, all lying knocked over like so many skittles. I notice the figures with male faces have very small or absent genitalia, and I realise this is the Department of Imperial Eunuchs, castrated as children to protect both the beautiful concubines they serve, and the Emperor from internal threat. A white skinned figure stands out from the others, with a small delicate face, and tiny breasts. She is a concubine, fair-skinned and lovely, protected on all sides by ranks of eunuchs.

The next pit is extraordinary but so dark it is difficult to make out much at all until my eyes adjust again. Instead of the disorder of the previous pits, many of the figures here stand in ordered columns, buried alarmingly up to their necks in earth. Historians believe that by some minor past miracle, this pit was the victim of grave robbers – they dug a deep hole, and stole some figures leaving a circular disrupted area seen in the centre of the photo. It’s thought that heavy rains seeped down the hole soon after, bringing a thick layer of mud to rest in the floor of the pit and cementing the figures forever in their original positions. These are the members of the Imperial kitchen, a vast department with many staff.

The kitchen department is the last to have been excavated. So that the Emperor would have sufficient food in the after-life the kitchen is stocked with hundreds of pots of grain, wine and condiments, hundreds of cooking vessels and implements, and thousands of livestock, all in terracotta miniature. Ranks and orderly rows of pigs and piglets, nanny goats and billy goats, chickens, ducks, geese and dogs line up to pay their respects to the Emperor. 
The wild dogs, pointy eared with down-hanging tails, look mean and nasty and were apparently intended for the cooking pot, but the domestic dogs, round-eared and cheery, stare at me through two thousand year old eyes, tails practicaly wagging with friendliness and…wait a second…is that miniature dog grinning at me??  The sculptor’s playful hand reaches through two thousand years, and grabs me firmly by the arm. ‘Do you like the expression on that one?’ he seems to be askingI can feel the hairs rise on the back of my neck as, in the dark and the solitude, I feel the history.

Hanyangling Museum
(also known as the Tomb of Emperor Han Jing Di)
Approximately 20 mins east of Xi’an Airport
Open 7 days
Entrance March to November 90 yuan pp, 8.30am – 7pm
Entrance December to February 65 yuan pp, 8.30am – 6pm

Xi’an Street Food – A Glutton’s Journey

OK I admit it, I ate every single item featured on this page, and it’s a very long page. If you hate street food, give up now and go make yourself a piece of pritikin toast. If you love it, read on and be prepared to feel very, very hungry by the end. All of this incredible food comes from Xi’an‘s fabled Muslim Quarter, home to a sizeable population of Hui Chinese muslims. To find it, just head north from the Drum Tower in the old city, and follow your nose down the small streets and alleys. The diversity of street food here is unparallelled to anything I’ve seen before in China, although I’ve since been told that Chengdu, in Sichuan province, is just as exciting in the street food department. Add that to the list of places to visit.

We ate dinner in the Muslim Quarter one night, and headed straight back for lunch the next day, and honestly, I could happily eat here every night for a year. Subsequently, as we sprinted through the crowded train station the following day to catch our train back to Shanghai (and almost missed it by a whisker), I was greatly consoled by the thought of two more meals in Xi’an if we had to stay another night……..

In addition to all the tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants, there are also dozens of shops heaving with autumn’s splendid bounty – baskets of huge round Shaanxi walnuts, trays of dried persimmons, boxes of tamarind, baskets of red and black dates, and mountains of fresh local pomegranates. Like a squirrel I darted here and there, stocking up on things to take back to Shanghai and try later.

I have tried and mostly failed to give you the names of everything, in English and Chinese. Any Xi’an natives out there who can help out? I apologise for any errors and will try to rectify them as more information comes to hand.

Chao Liang Fen 炒凉粉 Stir Fried Bean Jelly. We started with a meal of this gelatinous mixture, scooped into our bowls from a gigantic steaming griddle. Fried flatbreads stuffed with a mildly spiced lamb mixture were offered alongside. The crispness of the flatbreads was a great contrast to the soft cubes of bean starch, gently fried with a fragrant and heavy mutton stock, bean sprouts and chili. 

Spiced peanuts, and toasted and spiced crisp broadbeans. The peanuts pack some kind of punch, roasted with chopped dried chillies. The fiery heat means you can eat only a few at a time, probably a good thing when there is so much else on offer…..

Feng Mi Liang Gao 蜂蜜凉糕 Honey Cold Glutinous Rice. The photos here don’t do this justice, and nor does the description, because it really is truly delicious – a slab of glutinous rice is spread with a dark sweet sauce made from dates and black sesame seeds, folded in half, and then ground nuts and white sesame seeds are pressed into the surface. It’s cut into small diamond shapes which you eat daintily with a toothpick. Cool and sweet. We wolfed down two boxes in no time at all.

Yang Rou Chuan 羊肉串 Spiced Lamb Kebabs. Available at every corner, these little lamb beauties are marinated with a dry spice mixture of cumin, chili, pepper and garlic and grilled over charcoal. The easiest way to eat them is with a flatbread, seen warming here next to the grill.

Grilled quail eggs, served five in a row on a stick, and brushed with sesame paste. Impossibly delicious.

Shi Zi Bing 柿子饼 Persimmon Cakes. Persimmons are everywhere in Xi’an – fresh, dried, crystallized, and cooked. Lin tong ‘fire crystal’ persimmons are the most famous local kind, small and spherical, they are ‘red like fire’ and ‘clear as crystal’, and indeed they do have a translucent skin when they are totally ripe. The skin is very astringent, so the easiest way to eat them is to pull off the stalk and squeeze the sweet pulp directly into your mouth. Or, if you’re more lady-like, use a spoon to scoop out the pulp….

These persimmon cakes were a tip-off from a reader – thanks Hilary! One of the most delicious things I ate whilst in Xi’an, and possible one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten, ever. The cakes are made from a persimmon dough, wrapped around a filling (choose from one flavoured with ground walnuts, osmanthus, or rose) and then flattened and gently fried. As you bite through the crisp exterior, the sweet syrupy filling oozes out. Totally addictive, but they don’t travel well at all so I’mid-way through a (so far fruitless ) search for the recipe, before persimmon season is over. 

Xi’an Guang Tang Baozi 灌汤包子 Dumplings Stuffed With Meat and Sauce. Not a little unlike Shanghai xiaolongbao, these dumplings are filled with a meat mixed with a savoury gravy, and eaten with a vinegar dipping sauce spiked with chili and Sichuan pepper. A new favourite!

Time for something sweet – Sesame Brittle, and Peanut Brittle, sold by weight.

Steamed coconut yeast cakes. Light, airy, and not too sweet. I’ve had no luck in tracking down a Chinese name for these.

Baked flatbreads, each with its own beautiful pattern, sprinkled with sesame seeds and baked on the inside of a charcoal-fired clay-pit oven.

Jing Gao 镜糕 Steamed Glutinous Rice Lollipops. Now these are intriguing. The unsweetened glutinous rice is steamed in individual wooden molds, with three pieces of dried fruit in the centre. The vendor places three skewers into one, levers it gently out of the mold, and spreads each side with a sweet gel, for example hami melon or strawberry, then dips one side in crushed nuts, and the other in a black sesame seed and sugar mixture. The result? Sweet, crunchy outside giving way to a gooey glutinous centre. Despite evrything else I’d consumed, I finished a whole one by myself, and half of someone else’s. What a pig.

Hua Sheng Gao –Peanut Cake. Last but not least. Flaky and sweet, a little like halva, but with a delightful peanut butter richness. You’ll be pleased to know I didn’t unwrap this in the middle of the street and devour it like some greedy glutton. I waited til I got back to Shanghai for that. 

And you know what?? Despite tasting all of these dishes, I barely scratched the surface of what was on offer, and I missed some of the most famous Xi’an dishes altogether. Next time I’m going to try the famous Yang Rou Pao Mo 羊肉泡馍 – Mutton Soup With Flatbreads, and Rou Jia Mo 肉夹馍 – Spiced Shredded Mutton in Wheat Bread. Next time. If only I’d missed that train…….

Xi’an and That Whole Terracotta Warrior Business

Those terracotta warriors are unbelievably big business here in Xi’an. Some tourists do a Terracotta Warrior FiFo – you know, Fly In, see the warriors, Fly Out, usually a 24 hour warrior fling wedged between trips to Beijing and Shanghai. Well, we’ve got the whole day, and dammit, we’re gonna take a whole, full day to really see, enjoy, and soak up the history of these incredible 2200 year-old soldiers. We’ve hired a friendly driver, Andy (not his real name) to take us there and back, because it’s about an hour and a half out of town, near Lishan village. We have an explicit arrangement that he will collect us at 9.30am, take us to see the warriors and show us somewhere we can eat lunch, then bring us directly back to Xi’an by mid-afternoon.

So exactly why, no more than 30 minutes after starting out, we find ourselves at the Official Chinese Government Terracotta Warrior Factory and Shop, I’m not quite sure. Andy has perhaps been less than open with us about the nature of our journey. And his kickback. So we see the special clay, the special kiln, the talented craftsmen, and the incredible array of warriors for sale, all including shipping. Our factory guide, Linda, tells me that the warriors  make great garden ornaments, and are also snow-proof. Handy for the sub-tropics, I tell her, but she’s already moved on to the section of the factory making Tang Dynasty replica horses. 

‘Don’t buy anything!’ I hiss to our group, as I see the massively inflated prices on all the terracotta, porcelain, laquerware and stoneware (this factory makes everything).

We amuse ouselves taking photos wih the headless warriors outside, while inside, one of our party, who shall remain nameless, has just purchased a massively overpriced terracotta statue, in naive Tang style, of a famous concubine. Excellent. Andy looks very happy with us. 

By the time we get to far-off Lishan Village we have also somehow fitted in a visit to a Neolithic Village Archeologic Site and purchased several paintings in naive farmer style. I don’t quite know how our explicit arrangement came so badly unstuck, but Andy is beaming widely. 

It’s now time for lunch, and we’re still no closer to those warriors, but Andy just happens to have a friend who conveniently owns a country-style restaurant in Lishan village. Actually the food is pretty good – country style-chicken cooked with pomegranate (growing on every hillside nearby) and shredded sour stir-fried potato, and a dish of local mushrooms. Andy is a picture of conviviality, and informs me, grinning, that he will play poker with the waitresses while we see the warriors. I nearly ask if we can have a cut of the winnings but think better of it…

And so to the warriors, at last. To say they are impressive would be to massively understate their importance and grandeur. China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang of the Qin Dynasty, was a powerful controversial figure who unified China for the first time in its history, and amongst other achievements built the first Great Wall. Work started on his mausoleum when he was only thirteen years old, a depressing thought for any teenager. 

It was believed the Emperor would need everything in the afterlife that he required in real life, in terracotta replica – an 6000-strong army of foot soldiers, generals and chariots, archers and infantrymen; a battalion of administrators and officials; and entertainments including a troupe of acrobats and a garden full of rare birds and animals. Discovered by accident in 1974, there still remains a massive amount of excavation to be carried out. 
The warriors are incredible in the detail of their dress and armour, their expressions (no two alike), and in the sheer magnitude of their numbers. I loved the acrobats, bare-limbed, big-bellied and bare-chested, with rippling muscles; and also the quiet seated figure with simple clothing, holding some long-gone thing. 

We eventually find Andy, flushed with the excitement of his poker winnings, and maybe also from the effects of some bai-jiu (rice whisky), grinning like a madman near the car. He’s had a very good day, and as we roll back into Xi’an with the setting sun, he suggests we go again tomorrow, to a different tomb. 

‘Let me… you’ I say. 

Shaanxi Hand Cut Noodles- Dao Xiao Miàn 刀削麵

I have officially died and woken up in Street Food Heaven. Directly ouside our hotel near the Drum Tower is a local food street filled from one end to the other with steaming, delicious street food. 

My first meal in Xi’an is a huge, hot bowl of hand cut noodles. Now I don’t know if hand-cut noodles (dao xiao miàn – literally knife cut noodles -刀削麵) originated in Shaanxi province, where I am, or next door Shanxi province, which is totally different, but spelled almost identically. Very confusing. I do know that they are incredibly delicious and fascinating to watch as they are made.

The noodles are made and cooked to order from a slab of wheat dough, rolled into a large loaf shape then pressed firmly onto a rectangular wooden board, held just below shoulder height in the left hand. The noodle -maker stands over the steaming cauldron of boiling water and then deftly and rapidly slices thin strips of dough off the slab, with a swiftly flashing sharp knife. The noodle strips fly through the air and land with a splash-splash-splash! in the pot. Not a single one falls on the ground, the sign of a practised cook.

After cooking, the noodles are added to a rich broth, with the addition of greens, coriander, and spicy meat; or dressed simply in a rich spicy sauce. Both are delicious, and the noodles have a great chewy texture in the middle, and are ribbon-thin at the edges. About 6 yuan a bowl ($1). 

To Ancient Xi’an By Train

Last night I went to sleep in Shanghai, and woke up this morning in far-off Shaanxi province, the ancient cradle of the Chinese dynasties and the capital Xi’an. I took the Z train, rocked to sleep all the way by the lull and roll of the wheels on the tracks. This is a trip I’ve been trying to do for a year, but at last I will see Xian, the capital of Shaanxi, and the home of the famed terracotta warriors. And just as famed, the street food. I’m not sure which I’m more excited about.

I seem to be doing a lot of train travel lately, and to be honest, for this trip the pressure was on to go by air – a mere two and a half hours. But planes in China are unreliable, persistently delayed, and they pick you up and put you down without any concept of the shift in the landsape between A and B. I’m all for speed when time is short, but if I have the time, I enjoy the hours on the train, watching the slow transitions in the houses, fields and crops. I feel like this kind of rail travel may just be dying out, as the old trains are gradually repleced with faster and faster machines, and I should enjoy it as often as I can.

We left Shanghai in darkness, with the neon brightness of the city gradually thinning out then fading altogether. I had a little paper cup of red wine, sitting on the lower berth of our four bunk compartment, then climbed into my narrow upper bunk, pulled the white cotton-covered silk quilt up to my chin, and fell instantly asleep. Hours later, as the dark night lifted into early dawn, we passed through a landscape completely new to my eyes, and such a stark contrast to the lush, green rice and lotus paddies of south-east China where I have travelled before. Dry, brown, and ancient-looking, the villages here lie under cliffs of red earth, the houses either carved into the cliff-face, or hidden behind tall, red-brick walls with imposing stone gateways, opening onto sunny courtyards and humble low-set buildings. Golden yellow corn is laid out to dry on each flat roof, and the last of the dark orange persimmons are hanging on the trees.

This feels like an altogether different China, and it is, part of the mid-west Loess Plateau formed by the dust of far-off Siberia and neighbouring Mongolia, blown through millennia of duststorms and deposited here in Shaanxi. The Silk Road began here too, from this ancient and important capital, heading westward through central asia to Europe.

As I step out of Xi’an’s crowded train station, battling through the crowds and the taxi touts, I see the old city walls rising impressively in front of me. I can feel the history.