18 gates: a walk around Xi’an’s historical city wall

As early as the first weeks I spent in China, being trained in the capital of Beijing, I noticed how a lot of typical daily life takes place in parks. Every day I would walk to the office through Ritan Park and in the weekends I would visit other parks like the Temple of Heaven Park. Thinking back, I can vividly remember the feeling of wonder when seeing people dancing, singing, exercising and doing all kinds of Tai Qi.

When I moved from Beijing to Xi’an, the historical city that is the birthplace of common day China most famous for its Terracotta Warriors, I found another fascination: the city wall. Xi’an’s 14 kilometres long city wall, of which the current version was originally built during the Ming Dynasty of the 14th century. As a prominent landmark in the city centre, where a lot of the hustle and bustle of Xi’an was to be found, it became a beacon to navigate the city. People would refer to cardinal directions and gates when explaining where to go in the city centre: ‘The KTV (karaoke bar) is near South Gate’ or ‘The train station is outside the north-eastern corner of the wall’. Whenever I got lost in the city centre the 12 metres high wall would always help me find my way back (this was before I had a smartphone with Google Maps).

The Xi’an bucket list

When in November 2011 I decided that I would be leaving Xi’an it made me a little sad. While I had good reasons for leaving, among which horrendous air pollution that made Beijing’s ‘airpocalypse’ feel like a light fog, I really liked Xi’an, warts and all. When I realized how much I would miss Xi’an I sat down with the map of the city in front of me and made a list of all the things I had always wanted to do but never got around to doing: the Xi’an bucket list.

Being a treasure trove of Chinese history, the city has much more to offer than just the usual suspects like the Terracotta Warriors and the Big Goose Pagoda. In no time I had written down an impressive list of lesser-known sights. And I was determined to complete the list before I would leave. Well, maybe except for climbing the sacred mountain of Hua Shan as I was out of shape and the weather was not very suitable.

High on the bucket list was a walk around Xi’an’s city walls that had been a thread running through my two years in Xi’an. I had cycled the full 14 kilometres on top of the wall twice, once during daytime and once during nightfall, with its watchtowers beautifully lit up. I had participated in the City Wall Marathon in 2011 (well, ‘the around the corner and back’ 5 km version, to be honest) and went on the wall to see the Lantern Festival exhibition in 2012 as the first real date with my wife-to-be. But I realized I had never actually walked around the entire wall.

Between the city wall and the moat is a park that runs around the entire 14 km long city wall. As I had seen in Beijing, in pleasant weather the parks are where social life takes place. People dance, play instruments, sing, gather to play majong or Chinese chess or do some physical exercise on bizarre fitness instruments. A walk through a park is always an experience and one of those moments I considered myself lucky to have had the chance of living in China.

When I told Sun Hui, my wife-to-be, about my plan to do the full walk round around the city wall, she was immediately enthusiastic. In all the years she had lived in Xi’an she had never done that either. It was starting to get cold and grey, so we knew we should not wait much longer.

Day 1: South – West – North

On Sunday, November 4th, 2011, the weather was relatively warm and sunny. It took some effort to get out of bed since the district heating hadn’t been turned on yet and it was really cold in our apartment.

But after a hearty lunch we found ourselves at Yongning Gate (永宁门), more commonly known as ‘South Gate’, at 12.30 pm. South Gate is undoubtedly the highlight of the city wall and a good starting point for our walk. We decided to follow the sun and do the route clockwise. We also agreed that it wasn’t a race; this was meant to fully enjoy the area and take our time to see things that we had never noticed before.

The steps down to the moat are normally closed but today we were able to walk down. It was the first time I actually stood next to the moat in daylight – I had been there during the night when helping distribute winter blankets to the homeless – and I noticed that it was wider than I expected. The Chinese were fishing in the sun, and I wondered if there really was fish in the canal here (later I would see whole schools of carp). We walked along the moat but found the iron gate up the stairs closed. I was secretly happy that we had to walk back since I worried we would miss something interesting on the higher level of the park.

Inside the wall it is a menacing bare colossus that runs along a narrow street. But outside the wall, the combination of watchtowers and vegetation is a particularly pleasant sight. Especially when accompanied music from erhu (a type of two-stringed violin) and flute players. An hour after departure we went through Zhuque Gate (朱雀门, ‘Vermilion Bird Gate’) to buy some roasted sunflower seeds as a snack at a shop inside the walls. We walked back outside through the small Wumu Gate (勿幕门, ‘No Screen Gate’).

The next gate, Hanguang Gate (含光门, ‘Gate of Light’), was always an interesting sight because it’s where groups of hairdressers can be found. They offer their customers a new haircut for 5 yuan (60 Euro cents). A traffic roundabout runs through the wall at Hanguang Gate and the square within this roundabout is home to playing children and street vendors selling toys.

At the round tower that forms the south-west corner of the wall, we passed a religious gathering. At this point a parallel park starts outside the moat, but we continued our way inside the moat. This is where the fitness equipment starts. I have always wondered if these are really beneficial to one’s health. Ergonomically they don’t seem very sound, and a number of exercises could be considered bizarre or even dangerous.

A small crowd had also gathered here for a political speech. Sun Hui was handed a pamphlet describing the country’s succumbing to corruption and a planned invasion by the United States. Fearing I might be mistaken for an American we moved on swiftly.

Shortly before three o’clock we reached Anding Gate (安定门, ‘Security Gate’), better known as West Gate. Here you can find funny statues of camels heading for the gate, as if the Silk Road that entered the old city here was still active.

After an ice cream at KFC, we continued past Yuxiang Gate (玉祥门), the only other gate in the west wall. At a quarter past four we reached the north-west corner of the wall, where we found more people fishing in the moat.

Having done less than half of the route, it was clear by now that at this leisurely pace we would never be back at South Gate before sunset. Since our feet were starting to feel a bit tired, we decided that we would walk up to Anyuan Gate (安远门), also known as North Gate, and do the eastern half of the route another time. On our way there, we passed Shangwu Gate (尚武门).

We did walk – with a small detour past a Dongbei restaurant that Sun Hui had become addicted to – the 3-kilometre stretch from North gate back to South gate, which brought our total walk to about 10 kilometres and took us past Xi’an’s famous Bell Tower.

Day 2: South – East – North

Although it quickly started to get colder, the following Sunday was another sunny day. So, with some thicker clothes we decided to finish our walk. Around noon we were back at South Gate and decided to walk counterclockwise this time so we would eventually end up back at North Gate.

It was nice to see that the various parts of the city wall park all have their own character. On our first walk we had seen how the section between South and West Gate was full of musicians, gatherings, and merchants, while the section between West and North Gate was all about fitness equipment. Now that we continued our way eastwards from South Gate to East Gate, passed Wenchang Gate (文昌门), Heping Gate (和平门, ‘Peace Gate’) and Jianguo Gate (建国门, ‘Founding Gate’) we came across many places for social activities. Tents with pool billiards and a tent where people were playing cards for money.

Entering this latter tent, I wanted to take a picture of a performing opera singer but was ‘kindly’ asked (read: being shouted at) to put away my camera! Playing for money is illegal in China and nobody wanted to be caught on film taking part in this. I did wonder how a big tent full of illegal card games in such a public place could so easily escape the watchful eye of the authorities…

We had lunch at Changle Gate (长乐门), better known as East Gate, and continued for the last quarter part of the route. The section between East Gate and North Gate isn’t the most interesting part of the park, but it does have some quirks along the way. Take for example Zhongshan Gate (中山门), just north of East Gate. It is the only gate with original wooden doors. Of course they are always left open but are unique nevertheless.

Next to Chaoyang Gate (朝阳门) we found a strange building with a bridge over the moat. We crossed the bridge to eat some nuts and sunflower seeds in the sunshine on the other side. On the east and north sides of the wall, the park was already shrouded in the wall’s shadow, so catching some warm rays was quite nice.

The north-east corner of the wall showed some considerable damage, apparently due to an attach with cannonballs during the Ming dynasty. Here we headed westwards past Shangqin Gate (尚勤门) and Shangjian Gate (尚俭门).

Most noteworthy in the north-eastern part of the city way is Jiefang Gate (解放门, ‘Liberation Gate’), a series of enormous arches under the wall just south of the Xi’an’s train station square. This was a place I had often been to, taking night trains to cities all over China (Xi’an didn’t have high-speed trains at the time). As such, the large number of migrant workers caring big bags filled with their belongings that always gathered here in the square was a familiar sight to me.

Walking past Shangde Gate (尚德门) we eventually arrived back at North Gate. In total we had walked for 9.5 hours in two afternoons. A total distance of over 17 kilometres, passing the 18 gates of the city, ranging from the tiny Wumu Gate to the ever-impressive South Gate. Only 5 of these gates were actually built during the imperial dynasties of the Sui, Tang and Ming. The rest were built in the 20th century (11 gates) and 21st century (2 gates) to improve traffic flow through the city centre.

This walk around Xi’an city wall remains one of my most cherished memories from my years in China. It showed me one of the most beautiful things China has to offer: daily life taking place against the backdrop of impressive history of a former capital. It is this mixture of ordinary life with history and culture that makes China so special. For a moment I could forget about corruption, food safety, zir pollution and income inequality and fully enjoy life in China … 14 kilometres long!