Michael Chang’s love of noodles should make his adopted home a perfect fit.
But despite being world famous for its noodle dishes, Xi’an wasn’t a dream destination for the young tour guide.
Growing up poor in eastern China, Chang crowded around one of the only two televisions in his village to watch Hong Kong soap operas and TV dramas.
“They were all in these fancy offices eating instant noodles,” he said. ” I wanted that to be me.”
Chang never made it to Hong Kong. At 19, he left his country home for the first time and began a 13-hour train trip to Xi’an, deep in central China.
He studied foreign trade at a local college and after a failed attempt to launch his own dumpling restaurant, he began showing tourists around Xi’an’s numerous attractions.
In many ways, Chang’s personal journey reflects the extraordinary changes in China over the past few decades.
“When I got to Xi’an, there were no buildings higher than this wall,” he said, standing atop the city’s restored ancient city boundary which measures 12 meters (39 feet) tall. “Now they are popping up like mushrooms.”
With a population of more than 8 million people today, Xi’an has a long history even by Chinese standards.
The eastern starting point of the Silk Road trading route, Xi’an – then known as Chang’an – was a key crossroad between China, the Middle East and Europe and once China’s capital.
The hundreds of years of trade moving between China and the West helped forge lasting cultural links.
In Xi’an’s popular Muslim market, the scent of cumin hangs thick in the air over stalls where pomegranate juice and Arabic bread are sold. Lamb, not usually a Han Chinese favorite, is grilled over charcoal braziers.
This diverse selection of products shows the city’s melting-pot history, but over the centuries, as the Chinese capital moved elsewhere, Xi’an gradually lost its political and economic importance.
Like many cities in China’s vast hinterland, it fell behind in the 1980s when the Communist leadership in Beijing began liberalizing the country’s economy and opening up to the outside world.
Outstripped by coastal metropolises thriving on resurgent foreign trade, Xi’an struggled for relevance.
A new Silk Road?
Today, Chinese officials are trying to transform the country’s interior, promoting growth and development as part of the “One Belt, One Road” initiative.
Encompassing 68 partner countries and billions of dollars in investment, the scheme aims to restore ancient trade routes and open new markets to Chinese goods and influence. The land-based “belt” stretches from China to Europe, while the sea “road” links ports and maritime trading across Asia, Africa and the Pacific.
“This is a geopolitical move by China,” said Ben Simpfendorfer, author of the 2009 book “The New Silk Road” and founder of Hong Kong-based consultancy Silk Road Associates.
“There was always a vacuum in this region and it was strange that China hadn’t filled it. China enjoys a robust position in the region and it is easily the biggest economy.”
Frederic Neumann, a Hong Kong-based analyst with HSBC, said there is “actual real muscle behind this effort, it is not just pie in the sky.”
“There is a lot of money being mobilized, there are a lot of companies being put to task, there are a lot of projects being rolled out and by some measures it dwarfs development aid in recent decades from Western nations,” he said.
On the city’s outskirts, the Xi’an International Trade and Logistics Park is essentially an inland port.
Goods are shipped by train as far afield as Hamburg in Germany, and the Silk Road metaphor isn’t lost on the state-owned group that runs the port.
“This has a lot to do with our history and our location,” said Zhai Ruopeng, who manages its logistics and construction projects.
“We are in the geographic center of China and almost all of the developed Chinese cities are to the east of us. As the new Silk Road goes westward, we are now the gateway to the West.”
The logistics park was founded in 2008, but has since been firmly placed under the “One Belt, One Road” umbrella.
Some economists, however, remain skeptical of the much vaunted new rail links between China and Europe.
“Seaborne freight is much cheaper and manufacturing in China happens along the coast,” said Andy Xie, an independent economist.
“It costs a lot of money to go by rail and, for high-value products like iPhones, you can just use air cargo.”
Banking on the future
At least in Xi’an, the new Silk Road has a long way to go. The logistics park – which now sits inside a free trade zone – is scattered with empty buildings, a familiar sight in China’s construction sprees.
But that could be changing soon.
Wholesaler Zhu Hanqun came to Xi’an from Zhejiang province by way of Tanzania, and was keen to show off his Kiswahili.
“Karibu,” he says. “In Dar es Salaam, everyone knew me.”
Together with a group of businesspeople from his hometown, famous for its trading and manufacturing prowess, Zhu is selling high-end products imported from Europe and Africa to China: energy drinks, vitamin supplements, wine and snacks.
It seems like an odd mix on his shelves, but he’s confident.
“I lived in Africa for years and traveled to many European countries, but I saw that China was improving,” he said. “If I stayed overseas any longer, I might have gotten stuck there.”
Now Zhu, like so many in Xi’an, is banking the government’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” plan will revive the city’s past glory and bring him along with it.