Xi’ an is a museum city dotted with the historic relics of past dynasties, from the restored city walls to the majesty of the Terra-cotta Warriors. Xi’ an will delight travelers today, as it did centuries ago as the starting point of the famed Silk Road.
Xi’ an, the capital of Shaanxi Province, has over 3,000 years of recorded history, with human habitation present here as early as the Neolithic times, as discovered at the Banpo Village. Xi’ an has been the capital of 12 dynasties, though it has been known as various names, most notably as Chang’ an. It was also the starting point of the Silk Road, where camels were loaded for their long and perilous journey to Central Asia. Xi’ an’ s links to Central Asia goes beyond trade as Islam continues to have an influence on the local flavor through the Muslim Hui minority.
Dynasty after dynasty added their own mark to Xi’ an, and the relics of old palaces, temples and tombs abound throughout the city and surrounding countryside. The tyrannical Qin dynasty emperor Qin Shihuang, with his capital at Xianyang, close to present day Xi’ an, left his indelible mark through the famed Terra-cotta Warriors.
The Tang dynasty is considered one China’ s golden ages for its unmatched cultural achievements. Trade reached Central Asia and Europe, thousands of students from Japan and Korea arrived in Xi’ an to study in acknowledgement of Tang cultural pre-eminence and Chinese monks traveled to India to copy Buddhist sutras. At its zenith during the Tang dynasty, Xi’ an was the world’ s largest and most cosmopolitan city, stretching over 32.5 square miles and holding over one million residents.
Though Xi’ an was large, it was not affected by the incomprehensible twisting and turning lanes of similar cities of the era. As the first planned city in China, it was organized into a neat grid layout, highly symbolic in geomancy. Xi’ an city layout would influence other cities such as Beijing and Kyoto.
With the influx of foreign traders and students, and the self-confidence of the powerful and cosmopolitan Tang dynasty, Xi’ an became not only a trading center but also a nexus of cultures, religions, artistic endeavor and learning.
Today the city’ s charm lies in its historic atmosphere. There’ s a palpable sense of past glories, and vestiges of its history are ever present. One can easily imagine the sights and sounds of Xi’ an at the height of its glory when wandering along the city walls or strolling through the old Muslim quarter.
Xi’ an has recently became an important center for the central government’ s drive to develop western China. As an economic center for the region, Xi’ an is in a natural position for further development; aviation is already an important industry for the city.
Xi’ an gray city walls are imposing and built to keep out bandits and barbarians. The massive walls measure 39 feet (12 m) high and 52.5 feet (16 m) wide at the base, tapering to between 39 feet and 46 feet (12 to 14 m); they are 8.5 miles(13.74 km) in circumference. Towers at each corner of the walls have defensive towers jutting out along the length of the walls. The surviving walls, built on Tang dynasty foundations, date to the Ming dynasty and were built during the 14th century. Parts of the wall have been destroyed and the wall is incomplete but many sections remain or have been rebuilt. You can get up on the walls at any gate at the compass points. The scenery at the south gate is the best.
South of the city walls is the brick Big Wild Goose Pagoda in the Temple of Great Maternal Grace complex. The temple was built in AD 648 by Tang emperor Gaozong as an act of filial piety to honor his mother. The temple was destroyed after the fall of the Tang dynasty and the present buildings, mainly from the Qing dynasty, have been recently renovated.
The Big Wild Goose Pagoda is regarded by many as a symbol of the city. Built in AD 652, the pagoda has a 16.4-foot-high (5m) square base and reaches 212 feet (64.5m) in height. It was built to house and protect Buddhist scriptures collected by a Chinese monk, Xuan zang, who spent an epic 17 years traveling to India and back gathering them and an equal amount of time translating them. His journey has been immortalized in the novel Journey to the West, one of China’ s most important literary works.
Located in Muslim district along Huajue Lane, the Great Mosque is a short walk from the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower at the center of town. The mosque, which is still an active place of worship, was established by the Tang dynasty in AD 742 for Muslim traders from Central Asia who settled in Xi’ an.
Inside the Great Mosque compound it is difficult to tell that buildings are Islamic because it was built according to traditional Chinese architectural forms and many of the Islamic symbols are sinicized. Unlike typical Chinese temples, which are built on a north-south axis, the mosque is built east-west with the prayer hall at the far west end in accordance to the Islamic regulation of facing Mecca for prayer. Although originally built during the Tang dynasty, it has been extensively renovated with many of the present buildings hailing from the Qing dynasty. The mosque and the surrounding buildings take up an area of some 3,2 acres though not all areas, such as the prayer hall, are accessible to non-Muslims.
The mosque grounds are quiet, giving it an aura of religious sanctity and there’ s a large wooden gateway dating from the reign of the emperor of Qing dynasty, Kangxi, who reigned from AD 1662 to 1723. The gateway features the calligraphy by Mi Fu, a famous Northern Song dynasty calligrapher and painter. The Introspection Minaret, though doesn’t look like an Arabic minaret, is where the cleric preaches to his congregation on an upraised platform.
The area surrounding the mosque is called Huifang and has a distinct Muslim atmosphere, with small tree lined lanes crowded with restaurants and shops that are alive with activity.
To the south of the city walls, northwest of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, is the Shaanxi History Museum which opened in 1991. It is the largest comprehensive museum in the province. The museum exhibits over 3,000 historical relics, a small fraction of their collection, ranging from 115,000-year-old prehistoric artifacts to items from the Opium Wars of the 1840’s.
The museum, although built in a traditional Tang dynasty architectural style, is modern and well designed. The main attraction of the museum is the magnificent collection of Tang dynasty artifacts. Of special significance are silverware, the Terra-cotta pieces and murals from Tang dynasty tombs.
EASTERN TRAVEL ROUTE
The Huaqing Hot Spring, nearly 19 miles (30km) east of Xi’ an, was once the playground of Tang dynasty emperors, though there have been buildings there as early as the Western Zhou, with later additions built during the Qin and Sui dynasties. The hot springs are famous because of yang Guifei, a regular guest and the central character in one of China’ s most enduring legends of ill-fated love.
Yang Guifei, also known as the fat concubine-well-proportioned women were considered the epitome of beauty during the Tang dynasty-was a girl of humble origins but of exceptional beauty. She attracted the attention of Tang dynasty emperor Xuanzong, who became so enamored by her beauty, he ignored his imperial duties. As the empire began to crumble from rebellion, the emperor was forced to flee Xi’ an. While on the run, the emperor’ s courtiers, blaming Yang Guifei for the ruin of the empire, forced the emperor to order her to hang herself. The emperor, literally sick with grief, abdicated the throne to one of his sons.
The natural springs are considered to have beneficial minerals and there are several places to bathe. The Hot Springs Bathhouse offers private baths, but communal bathhouses have more of the local atmosphere and are inexpensive. Entry to the Huaqing Hot Spring is RMB 110 and is open from 8am to 7pm.
Banpo Village, inhabited long before the glories of the various empires that made Xi’ an home, was discovered in 1953. The village is the earliest example of the Neolithic Yangshao culture that’ s renowned for its colorful ceramics that feature etchings that are possibly an early from of writing. The site itself is made up of divided into three separate areas: a residential area, a manufacturing area, and a cemetery. Remaining are 45 house and buildings. 250 adult graves, 73 children’ s burial urns, and six pottery kilns. The villagers cultivated various crops, domesticated pigs and dogs, fished in the nearby Wei River and manufactured ceramics.
Some archeologists have argued that Banpo represents a matriarchal society, though the supporting evidence remains vague. The site has been a treasure trove of artifacts though, with over 8,000 pieces unearthed. Some of the most interesting artifacts are the children’ s burial urns. Children weren’ t buried with the adults, but placed in urns which were buried close to homes. The lids on the urns have a hole in the top in order for the spirits of the deceased to travel to the afterworld.
The Banpo site holds two attractions: the Neolithic Village and theme park-esque Matriarchal Village.
THE TERRACOTTA WARRIORS
In 221 BC, for the first time in its history, China was united under one emperor, Qin shihuang of the Qin dynasty. The Qin emperor’ s influence far outlived his short dynasty. The Qin emperor’ s influence far outlived his short dynasty. His most important achievement was unifying the various warring kingdoms and integrating standardized writing, money, weights and measures into one centralized bureaucracy. Like many autocrats, Qin Shihuang had an early start on his own mausoleum; construction began when he was only 14 and continued for 36 years.
The emperor’ s tomb complex is a massive memorial to a man that history remembers as both brilliant and brutal. Many parts of his rich tomb remain unexplored because current archeological technology isn’ t advanced enough to preserve the priceless artifacts held within.
The tomb complex of the Qin emperor, at 21.7 square miles, is best described as an underground palace with stables and an inner and outer city. Han dynasty historian Sima Qian detailed the construction effort, he wrote of the vast effort required to build the emperor’ s final resting place. Over 700,000 conscript and slave laborers built the tomb to hold the numerous treasures within, rivers of mercury, constellations of pearls and assortment of valuables the emperor would require in his afterlife, including live soldiers, concubines and servants – plus the artisans who worked on the mausoleum lest they reveal its secrets.
Today Qin Shihuang’ s un-opened vault, 0.9 miles ( 1.5km) from the Terra-cotta Warriors, still guards its secrets. The nondescript grassy mound above the vault is surrounded by trees. On peaceful sunny days, the wind blows yellow earth across the countryside, what may lie underneath belies the humble surroundings and tantalizes the imagination.
The Terra-cotta Warriors from only a part of the Qin emperor’ s tomb complex. They may have remained forgotten had it not been for the fortuitous discovery by local peasants drilling a well in 1974. What they found would excite the archeology world.
In a vault of approximately 3 acres (12,000sqm), lying some 16 feet (5m) underground, stood some 8,000 terra-cotta infantry soldiers, archers, cavalrymen and chariots arranged in battle formation, ready to defend their emperor’ s immortal soul. Each soldier is approximately 71 inches (1.8m) tall, with higher-ranking soldiers being taller, and made of 3-inch-thick (7.6cm) clay. Each part of the hollow body was made separately. While the trunk, limbs and hands were mass-produced and the face of each warrior is distinct. It has been theorized the faces were sculpted from the likeness of the soldiers and artisans. The terra-cotta sculptures show a high level of artistry with individualized facial expressions, hairstyles and green pants, though the colors have long faded. As warriors, they each held weapons: bronze swords, spears, axes and halberds – which were still sharp when discovered – and longbows and crossbows.
Three pits containing warriors are open; a nearby fourth pit found empty,. The pits are still being excavated and in many, warriors lay toppled as if they fell in combat, Shattered and headless statues give the eerie sense of viewing the carnage of an ancient battlefield. Though a daunting task, archeologists continue to piece together the broken remains of those warriors who lost their battle against time.
Pit 1 is the largest and contains about 6,000 warriors with war chariots and horses. Housed in a gigantic building that resembles an airplane hanger, the warriors are protected from the elements and tourists who view them from elevated walkways. The warriors are lined in 38 trenches, facing eastwards to the emperor’ s tomb.
The warriors in Pit 2 are mostly hidden and excavation continues with most of the area closed off. This pit show signs of fire damage, the mausoleum was looted by Xiang Yu, one of the warlords who battled for supremacy after the fall of the Qin dynasty. While the first pit contains mostly foot soldiers, the second pit is the mobile arm of the army with chariots, cavalry and archers. A tall statue, thought to be a general, was also found in this pit.
The third pit is the command center for the ghostly army, with 68 statues of officers around a war chariot. The clothing of the officers differs from common soldiers, the officers wear fine robes and are much taller.
There’ s a display hall with two bronze chariots unearthed near the base of the emperor’ s tomb. There elaborate half sized chariots are intricately detailed, with drivers and horses sporting decorated plumes and gold and silver inlaid harnesses. There richly decorated chariots feature working parts such as windows that open and close and turning handles. There are also exhibitions featuring artifacts from the pits, allowing a closer look at the intricate workmanship.
Outside the gates of the Terra-cotta Warriors, present-day marker warriors will give a shrill battle cry as you approach. They’ re armed with different wares, from ubiquitous replica terra-cotta warriors to postcards – the best defense is a good offense and that means bargaining.