China Stories Life & Society Video

Revisiting Xi’an: Old Memories & New Experiences

In January of 2020, I finally returned to the Chinese city of Xi'an after 20 years. The experience reminded me of many reasons I have grown to love China, and how there are many interesting things to learn about and enjoy in the country.

I first visited the city of Xi’an during my first trip to China, early in 2001, when I was still in my final year at North Monterey Country High School in Castroville, California. The high school band, of which I was a member, had achieved a small degree of fame through enthusiastic performances across the United States, and was invited to visit China by one of the local government entities. Thus began my first trip to China, which included trips to Shanghai, Beijing, Xi’an, and Shijiazhuang, and would lay the foundation my two-decade-long (so far!) relationship with China and its people.

Returning to Xi’an was more memorable than previous trips to Shanghai and Beijing, perhaps because of its distance from China’s eastern coast where I have made my home for more than 10 years. It might also be due to the fact that while Xi’an has also modernized just like other Chinese cities, its progress does not appear as visually obvious as it does in other cities, allowing me to more easily connect, both mentally and emotionally, with my very first experiences in China.

Take a video tour of the #Chinese city of #Xian, including sumptuous street food and the ancient city wall!

And so, earlier this year, I was very excited to return to my roots, as it were, and experience both the Xi’an I had known so long ago, as well as the new city that Xi’an had become. My trip, from January 02 – 06, was somewhat of a whirlwind, trying to fit in a number of things every single day. But overall, there were four main experiences, which I shared in a previous vlog and would like to share with you here, today. I visited a local university to discuss education in Xi’an, I sampled a wide variety of street foods that the city has to offer, I visited the ancient city wall, and, last by not least, I found out what it’s like to vacation at a Chinese-style hot spring resort.

For those of you more visually-minded, you can take a look at the video, linked below. However, I will also provide additional commentary on the trip for those of you who are interested in learning more, not just about the trip, but about my reflections on China. In any event, Xi’an is a very exciting city and I highly recommend visiting if you have the opportunity.

Education in Xi’an

As it turns out, while I had many reasons for returning to Xi’an, what started the process was a conversation with a good friend. My friend Rui had previously accepted a position as Deputy Dean at a university in Xi’an and was working with the local faculty to improve the international-focus of the education provided to Chinese students. I originally prepared a short video lecture in Chinese to share with the students months ago, and after its success, Rui invited me to visit Xi’an and talk with the faculty at his school, in addition to taking a tour of the city.

For those of you who may not know, internationalized education is a big deal in China. On one hand, in the past, it’s been very common for parents with the money and the means to send their children to study overseas in reputable universities, as overseas degrees were long-viewed as the path to good jobs and success (things are changing now, but that’s a story for another time). On the other hand, Chinese universities aim to provide their students with knowledge on international businesses and practices, not simply because of the global companies doing business in China, but because of the increasing number of Chinese companies expanding overseas.

However, providing this knowledge effectively can be a challenge at times, due to differences in China’s educational practices, cultural differences, and other factors. Thus, it is not uncommon for Chinese universities to employ professors from overseas universities, or as in my case, bring in experts from various backgrounds to consult. Which is how I ended up in a small classroom on a cold Xi’an winter morning, talking about my own experience studying for a business degree as well as working in global marketing and PR roles.

There was a lot of enthusiasm in the room, as there often is in China, as well as an interest in and a willingness to listen to what I had to say. I talked a lot with the teachers about curriculum design and the type of courses generally offered to Western business students. In China, language and cultural barriers can prevent progress early on, but once the Chinese can see and learn from successful examples they often pick things up rather quickly. Needless to say, I enjoyed this opportunity to interact with the faculty, learn more about their own challenges, and see how to help them overcome them.

Xi’an Street Food

With the real work out of the way, I was able to head over to a famous food street (only slightly touristy) called Yong Xing Fang to sample a number of local Xi’an dishes. Street food was once extremely popular and prevalent in China, and it’s a fond part of my earlier memories in China, such as when I was studying abroad in Chengdu, from 2004 to 2005. In those days, while street food indeed felt more authentic, it was also a good deal less hygienic, with the street food scene more often than not characterized by quaint roadside carts and messy, oily grills.

Things have changed in recent years, with actual roadside carts an uncommon sight in many big cities, as authorities have attempted to modernize and pursue policies aimed and greater health and wellness. But the Chinese, ever-innovative, almost always have a solution. While late-night kabob stands have vanished, they have been replaced by a number of actual restaurants, in some cases high-end ones, that cater to the street food-loving crowd. And, all in all, it’s a change for the better, as unregulated and dirty food carts are indeed not the best for our health.

However, that’s not to say that those of us in China don’t get a tad nostalgic about the good old days of freewheeling street food, and that’s one reason I particularly enjoyed the street food I had in Xi’an. The winding streets of Yong Xing Fang featured both stalls and small restaurants, and it really took me back to my study abroad days, as I sampled a number of treats including, lamb kabobs, steamed noodles, a soup with what tasted like wet cornbread (it was tasty), and other items as well.

If you haven’t watched my Xi’an vlog yet, I would highly recommend at least watching the food street section, as I feel it really portrays how exciting food can be in China, with all of the different sights, sounds, and tastes the dining experience can offer.

Xi’an City Wall

Next, I headed over to the city wall, which was a special place to me for several reasons. First, when I visited Xi’an in 2001, the city wall featured prominently. Not only were we able to walk along the city wall (it’s actually a tourist attraction), but my high-school band (a marching band, in fact) was able to perform on the wall in front of a live crowd, something I recall clearly to this day. Therefore, one of my first priorities was to walk the wall again, and experience the city – by walking the entire circumference of the wall I was able to view the city in all directions, and from a significant height, which really gives one an appreciation of the size of this amazing city. It also brought back fond memories from those early days – the excitement of experiencing China for the first time, when the country was still in the midst of its opening-up, and everything seemed both incredibly old and incredibly new, all at the same time.

Second, while China’s opening-up and modernization has brought many benefits, one of the downsides has been that much of China’s traditional architecture has been slowly vanishing. Older houses have slowly been torn down, including Beijing’s traditional Hutong alleys and courtyard homes. I, therefore, feel its a very unique experience to experience China’s traditional architecture firsthand, and have the opportunity to walk among (and on) the literal history of a country, and to experience the same sights that others have, hundreds, if not thousands of years before.

Lastly, it’s also a great spot for pictures.

Xi’an Hot Spring Resort

My final stop was at a five-star hot spring resort outside the city limits. I can’t say I’m an expert on what a hot spring resort is supposed to be like, as the only similar place I’ve been to was a garden-sized sauna in California, with only several hot and cold tubs, and for only a stretch of one-two hours. In contrast, a Chinese hot spring resort is the size of an entire park in an of itself. This is without counting all the other attached facilities, including the hotel, dining complex, and other recreational facilities, including a massage parlor (the PG variety, thank you very much).

Aside from the actual hot springs, the resort was very much in line with what I have experienced at resorts in China over the years – good rooms, so-so food (the good places are all off-site), etc. What was a nice surprise was the unexpected variety of hot springs – 20+ different pools scattered across a lush and vibrant landscape, each filled with a different herbal mixture, including milk and various types of Chinese traditional medicines.

The big surprise was how physically draining a trip to a Chinese hot spring resort could be. For this was a trip that lasted an entire day, and from what I gathered from other Chinese guests, the usual practice was to spend two-three hours soaking in both the morning and afternoon, interspersed with meals, rests, and massages. Needless to say, I was exhausted afterward, though in a mostly positive way. Afterward I finished the trip in the traditional Chinese fashion – with a good meal among friends.

So, that’s about it for my trip to Xi’an. I hope you enjoyed the video as well as my description of the trip. I also hope it inspired you to learn more about China, and hopefully visit Xi’an yourself one day. If you have any questions about Xi’an, feel free to let me know if the comments below.


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