The Odyssey
Base Camp
Trek Connect
Time Machine
Multimedia and Special Guests

India and China
Abeja Dispatch

Here we are in China! No wait, I mean Istanbul! No, no, this must be Tehran!
July 26, 2000

Click image for larger view
Kavitha buys some bracelets from a Muslim Chinese woman
We've been traveling WAY too long, haven't we? Kavitha and I are walking down a busy street full of vendors and snack carts, and I'm totally confused. The people look Chinese, but many of the women are wearing headscarves, the men have on little white skullcaps like the Muslims we met in the Middle East and there are signs in Arabic! The restaurants hang fresh meat from hooks, just like they did in Cairo.

Turning left, we wander through the thin, twisting alleyways, and find a large wall with fancy Arabic calligraphy. Now I'm fairly certain that I've fallen into a wrinkle in the space/time continuum. Following the wall around past the vendors, we find the front gate. A sign labels this as "The Great Mosque." Hey! Shouldn't this be a Buddhist or Taoist temple? It looks Chinese, with its sloping roof and brightly painted wooden beams.

Click image for larger view
It doesn't look like any mosque I've ever seen-but we're in China!
"We've made it to the other end!" Kavitha exclaimed. I just looked at her, more confused than ever. Yes, of course we're almost finished with the World Trek, but what does this mosque have to do with that? "The Silk Road, silly! This is Xi'an, China: the other end of the Silk Road that started all the way back in Istanbul!"

Ah ha! I get it! After traders and adventurers like Marco Polo crossed through Turkey and Iran, over the Himalayas and through the Gobi desert, they finally found their way here! Since so many of the traders were Arabs, it makes sense that they would be Muslim, so they brought their religion with them! I've read that, in ancient times, Xi'an had a large foreign community, including Zoroastrians from Persia and Buddhists from India!

Click image for larger view
Middle East meets Far East-the living legacy of the Silk Road.
Because we're not Muslims, we're not allowed inside the mosque. I take some pictures from outside, and we head off to explore more of this ancient city - and when I say ancient, I mean ancient. Some people say that this is the oldest city in the world! Remains of settled people have been found nearby from Neolithic times (6000 years ago), and Xi'an was the home of the Zhou people who first began unifying China in 1122 BCE and started the whole Dynasty thing.

Xi'an, for centuries, was the heart of China's commercial and political world. Since the Chinese thought that the rest of the world were uncivilized barbarians, they though they were the center of the whole world and called China "the Middle Kingdom." So Xi'an was the center of the middle, or the middle of the center, or something like that. Basically, it was REALLY important.


zenith - the highest point
clamber - to climb up something using you hands and feet
ironic - something that is the opposite of the intended meaning

From the Zhou Dynasty until the 9th century CE when the center of Chinese power moved eastward, this was the heart of the world, as far as Asia was concerned. In the bigger picture, it was on par with Constantinople (Istanbul) and Rome as the greatest, wealthiest cities in the world. It reached its zenith in the T'ang dynasty (618-907 CE), when it reached a population of 2 million people-possibly the biggest city in the world at the time!

Click image
for larger view
The old Drum Tower has a huge drum that can be heard throughout downtown!
Kavitha and I wander out of the historic "Muslim quarter" and back into the traffic and bustle of downtown. Unlike Rome or Istanbul, with its giant Blue Mosque and the Aya Sophia, not much remains of the great ancient city of Xi'an. One dynasty after another would destroy the buildings of the previous rulers, leaving us with little but stories to go by.

We walk along the giant wall that surrounds the city like a fortress. There is a moat outside, and a nice little park surrounds it, where old folks gather to do Tai Chi every morning. This wall has been built, destroyed, and rebuilt many times throughout history. In the T'ang Dynasty, these were the walls to the inner "Imperial City," where only the emperor and his family and officers and concubines were allowed to enter. The palace was inside that (long since replaced by a skyscraper or a KFC), but most of the population lived outside.

Click image for larger view
The Chinese are famous for their pottery, and the old stuff is really valuable!
The walls were rebuilt early in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), but then they were hollowed out for air-raid shelters during the war with the Japanese, and then used to store grain during the Cultural Revolution. Today, they've been rebuilt again-this time, it's not for protection, to keep foreigners out, but rather for tourism, to bring foreigners in!

After walking along the city walls-rebuilt for our pleasure-we meet up with our friends Bing and Meidai and hop on a bus to the weekly antique market. It seems appropriate, since this is such an ancient town, and its prosperity was based on trade, that we go to a market selling Chinese antiques. But it seems even more appropriate, since I'm about to go home after traveling for 18 months, so I have to bring presents for my family!

Click image for larger view
These men sell books of Chinese wisdom that have survived time and the Cultural Revolution.
Coins from the Han Dynasty, carved jade from the Qin Dynasty, and old bones for fortune telling...these are things you can't find so easily in China town! It amazes me to think that these are the very same things that were sold along the silk road! These are the same coins that were used inside and outside the imperial city. The books and the pottery were used by people who lived in a totally different society, where women bound their feet to be small forever, and classes were strictly divided between the peasants and the rulers.

My imagination runs wild, and my wallet is well used. After a few hours, we all clamber back on the bus, loaded with antiques and ready for dinner. The bus passes back through downtown, where the trendy shops with posters of European faces in fashion clothing stare back at me. While the young people in China spend their time and money buying clothes and music from the "West," I've come here to learn about their ancient cultures. Isn't it ironic?


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Kavitha - Learning the Way of the Peaceful Warrior - Mastering the Art of Kung-fu
Jasmine - "One Man's Insects are Another Man's Steak"
Yang-Yang - Finding the Confucian in You!
Yang-Yang -The Price is Right…but at what cost to Chinese culture?

Meet Abeja | Abeja's Archive

Base Camp | Trek Connect
Time Machine | Multimedia and Special Guests

Home | Search | Teacher Zone | Odyssey Info

Meet Abeja