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China's other great wall in Xian

China's other great wall in Xian
Cycling along Xian's impressive and imposing City Wall in fading light, Anthony Dennis sees a host of sights that will stay with him for life.

But here I am, on the blessedly straight and not so narrow sloped surface of that other great wall, which for kilometres wraps itself around the cosmopolitan Chinese city of Xian.

Xian's principal attraction, and one of China's most popular, is the Terracotta Warriors, housed in an aircraft-hangar-like building an hour or so outside the city.

Then there's the inscrutable Forest of Ancient Tablets, an assortment of historic stones that feature the world's first dictionary.

Elsewhere is the moody Muslim Quarter, full of narrow, crowded, smoky, clogged laneways that herald the beginning of the Silk Road and Islamic China to the west.

But it is Xian's City Wall, the longest and most intact fortification of its kind left in China, that really ignites my enthusiasm. Most visitors to Xian just take a short, cursory stroll along the wall, a peek over the side at the streets below, and then move on to tick off Xian's next attraction.

Xian along with Beijing, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Luoyang and Kaifeng is one of China's six ancient capitals, with its wall dating to as early as the second century BC. The rectangular-shaped City Wall is between 12km and 14km long, depending on which source you rely on, with its length from east to west slightly longer than that of south to north.

Xian's City Wall is an imposing physical feature, dating to before Christ, but the existing fortifications are the product of the 14th-century Ming dynasty, a fraction of the length of the original one. During the Tang dynasty, the City Wall went for 35km.

You can walk, even run, the entire length of the City Wall or cheat by taking an electric buggy around it. But I've rented, at one of a number of hire outlets atop the wall, a rickety old Taiwanese-made Giant bike, sans helmet, for a few bucks and set aside a few hours to complete this unique elevated journey.

As I take off, I'm not sure which direction I'm cycling in but I just hope that it returns me to the bicycle rental station from where I've hired my Giant. The wall is marked by a quartet of city gates, which act as handy landmarks for someone pedalling along the entirety of its cobbled surface. The surface of the wall along which I ride is slightly sloped to allow for drainage and it takes a while to get used to cycling on it.

I'm in Xian, more or less the start of the eastern section of the legendary Silk Road where the often more exotic, less typically Han Chinese, faces of many of the local people begin to reveal a story of what lies ahead.

I'm travelling part of an extraordinary, first-class rail adventure and this ancient Chinese city is a major stop on an epic journey.

The tour is operated by The Captain's Choice group and takes tourists along the Silk Road between Beijing and Moscow, the ancient and mysterious trading route explored by the likes of Marco Polo and Genghis Khan.

On this Chinese section of our journey we're travelling aboard a chartered private train that, at other times, transports senior Communist Party officials.

On the wall, it's one of those perpetual grey days in China where you're unsure as to whether the sky is gloomily overcast or just pathetically polluted (or both).

It's late afternoon and the pink setting sun through the dense cloud resembles a strand of loose fairy floss above me as I pedal along the wall, every now and then encountering workmen repairing sections of the wall's surface.

From up here, 12m above Xian and spared from the crowds that characterise the city below, you can survey virtually the whole teeming city, peering down streets and laneways and across the faded terracotta rooftops.

The City Wall reminds me of New York's fashionable High Line, an old elevated railway transformed into a landscaped aerial park running through Manhattan's famed Meat-packing District and now the hippest place to hang out in the Big Apple.

But Xian's rather more modestly landscaped City Wall outstrips it in length by more than 10km.

Further along, the bicycling and pedestrian traffic on the wall is noticeably thinning and the light is getting murkier by the minute as I trundle along whole sections of the wall without seeing a single person for, well, minutes; a rare experience in a country of more than a billion souls.

On one lonely section of the wall, I pass a young Chinese couple taking a romantic sunset walk, the boyfriend pushing his bike with one arm, the other wrapped around his girlfriend's waist. Her head is resting on his shoulder. I take a photo from my moving bike but it turns out fuzzy, though I won't easily forget the scene.

Further along, a distinguished-looking elderly man is partaking of his early evening constitutional, pausing to take a peek through the intermittent slots in the battlements at the street activity below.

It's getting dark and I have a train to catch to Moscow. Eventually the red lanterns along the ramparts are switched on, along with garishly lit public buildings that look like gigantic Chinese restaurants.

It seems the wall will never end as I pedal my way back to my starting point, faintly concerned that I may overshoot the rental stand, from which I hired the bike, in the dark. At the end, I return my bike and collect my deposit.

Twelve kilometres (or is it 14?) and 2 1/2 hours later, I hobble away a trifle saddle-sore feeling as stiff and nearly as ancient as one of those Terracotta Warriors.

The writer was a guest of The Captain's Choice Tour and Singapore Airlines.
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