On Monday, after a day of teaching, when the smog had somewhat settled, Kelly and I walked through the main gate of the school complex to see if we could find our way downtown. We walked one short block, serenaded by the honking horns, waited one short moment, and hopped aboard the double-decker 608. I had traced out the 608 bus route on my little map, and it looked like the perfect way to magically transport ourselves from the high-tech district to the ancient center of Chang’an.
From the second deck of the bus, we could make out familiar sights: the Unicom tower, the Post office skyscraper, the streams of humanity. Soon we headed north into uncharted territory, excited that we could so easily slip off to another world.
In the distance the city walls were ringed with lights. Buildings without flashing neon will seem dull indeed after two months of the pulsating buzz of these symphonies of light. Now we could make out the ancient walls, outlined in neon. As we moved closer to the southern gate, we could see the dynastic structures, also painted in light.
We descended from the bus into the rush of traffic. In front of the majestic gate, we noticed a play with hundreds of people—a tribute to the Qing dynasty? We made our way north toward the bell tower, the center of Xi’an, then turned west down another street. Suddenly, as if by magic, we found ourselves in the shadow of an immense gilded tower, lit up by dozens of spotlights.
This, we learned, was the drum tower. Built in 1380, over a hundred years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, this tower served as a companion to its brother, the bell tower, during two separate dynasties. The bell was rung to announce the dawn, the drum, to announce the fall of evening. I find it fascinating that such impressive structures were created to declare something so obvious.
For a mere $5 apiece, we were able to climb the staircase to the first level. Beside us stretched drums from another time, above us towered this ghost of the Qing dynasty, beyond us moved the vibrant life of downtown Xi’an. The drum, we were told, is the oldest instrument in China. In the very center of the drum tower is what is known to be the largest drum in the country.
In awe, we moved into the building and climbed more stairs. We felt a special connection to this building, since we had discovered it on our own, instead of being a part of a tour group. We walked quietly upwards. Above us we could see the rafters, ornately painted like Matryoshka dolls. As we ascended, we noticed signs warning us not to take photos, and the reverence of the ancient structure echoed those signs. Here in the bowels of this tower we found a museum with antique chairs, tables and other artifacts from the Qing dynasty. I noticed men reading from large books in the corner with a sort of reverent air, so I tread softly.
A small door let out into the busy night air, and below we could hear the honking of horns and the lifeblood of the Xi’an: people eating, talking, buying, buses continually circling, taxis, cars, bicycles, motorbikes and other wheeled vehicles. We were standing on a small ledge, little between us and the streets below. Both of us began to mix a pinch of acrophobia with doubt of 14th century craftsmanship.
We let the feelings wash over us, and then we descended the long stairs back into the crowd and caught to 608 back to Gaoxin Number 1. We really need to get one of these drum towers in downtown Lexington.