City steeped in time
While best known for an imperial tomb guarded by terracotta warriors, the former Chinese capital of Xi'an boasts a plethora of other historic, cultural, religious and winter-sports attractions which are well worth checking out
Zhang Yongping recalls his grandmother telling him how, back in her youth, Xi'an used to be surrounded by rice fields and forests as far as the eye could see and how the gates to the walled city would be closed and barred at sunset and not re-opened for any reason until the following morning.
"It must have been scary for travellers who didn't make it there in time because there were wolves and foxes and tigers roaming around in the countryside back then. But when I was a boy there were no longer any wild beasts to be found here. Nor any farmland either. All there was to see were buildings and more buildings," said Zhang who is now in his 50s and works as a tourist guide. And that concrete jungle continues to expand.
Nowadays, if you visit Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi province, you cannot fail to notice the rash of construction sites, many of which are destined to become high-rise condominiums. Several major roads are also being dug up to allow the installation of tunnels for a second underground train line. Xi'an has an official population of 8.4 million, but that figure is continually growing.
Large shopping centres light up the night sky with their neon signs and decorations. Some have even erected huge LCD screens to run advertisements and at dusk these start to glow like giant spotlights. There are also IT malls, and large theme or cultural parks featuring regular light-and-sound performances.
Like any metropolis of its size there are public open spaces, souvenir shops, tourist accommodation and a plethora of restaurants including US fast-food franchises such as KFC, McDonald's and Starbucks. And like Bangkok and other large cities, traffic jams are a given here. While some of the major streets have up to 12 lanes, this never seems enough to accommodate all the vehicles jostling for space. Xi'an motorists tend to honk their horns frequently. They drive aggressively, overtaking whenever they find an opening, so getting across a road is always a challenge for pedestrians who need to exercise extreme caution even when they venture out onto a clearly marked zebra crossing.
One good thing about the streets here, though, is that they are lined on both sides with tall trees, ginkgo or maple for the most part. These provide welcome shade during the summer. During my recent visit the leaves had turned different shades of yellow, adding a touch of autumnal allure to these busy thoroughfares.
A view of Xi’an city from Wild Goose Pagoda.
It is now the beginning of winter in this part of China with daily average temperatures of between 10 and 15C. Unscathed by the chill, the hardy locals were still to be seen early every morning doing group exercises like tai chi in the parks or even on especially wide sections of footpath. In the evenings, large groups of people also flock to mass aerobic-dance sessions.
Despite all the modernisation, the authorities have been assiduous in preserving places of historic interest and several residents told me that their city was like one enormous museum of Chinese history. The main tourist attractions are the restored city wall, the Bell Tower and Drum Tower _ both of which date from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD), Ci'en Temple and its Wild Goose Pagoda (648 AD) and _ best-known of all _ the mausoleum built more than 2,000 years ago for Emperor Qin Shi Huang with its serried ranks of life-size terracotta guardians.
Xi'an has in excess of 70 museums in total, many of which display valuable objects unearthed from various royal tombs.
The citizens of Xi'an are also celebrated for their many centuries of devotion to Buddhism, Kang Lifeng, deputy director of the Xi'an Tourism Administration, told me.
"We have six of eight most famous temples in China," he said. One of these, Famen, is best known for a lovely old pagoda which is believed to contain a relic of the Lord Buddha.
Chinese tourists like to visit Xi'an during the winter months for skiing and they also flock here in the summer because of its pleasant climate, the average daily temperature being 29C. Usually the coldest is gets here is in January, Kang said, when the mercury drops to minus 6C.
Some 65 million Chinese visit Xi'an each year, with the number of foreign arrivals being in the region of one million. Of the latter, the top 10 nationalities are all European, Kang said, adding that the city does not get many tourists from Thailand, although this may change with the recent introduction of direct daily flights from Bangkok.
According to local guide Lin Minh Jua, travellers who have already been to Xi'an should consider returning for another visit because this city is in a constant state of flux.
"If you come back to Xi'an, after having been away for a couple of years, I'm sure that you won't recognise the place, because this town is always changing _ and changing for the better, too."
The mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BC), the biggest imperial tomb found in China dating back to ancient times, is located 35km east of town and looks rather like a natural hill. Credited with unifying China in 221 BC, Qin also made great contributions to Chinese society including the standardisation of Chinese characters, units of measurement and currency. Around 700,000 workers and craftsmen were involved in building his mausoleum, the work taking 37 years to complete. Archaeologists have so far excavated more than 100 pits at the site, but only three are currently open to the public, according to local guide Zhang Yongping. At the largest of these, Pit No.1, visitors can observe 7,000 life-size terracotta figures of warriors and horses. The average height of the clay soldiers is 1.8m. Each was designed with unique facial features and a uniform with markings to indicate military rank. Zhang said terracotta figures found in some of the other pits represent non-military occupations such as performers. We were told that the government won’t give the go-ahead to excavate the final resting place of Qin Shi Huang himself until such time as scientists have found a way to prevent the coloured paint applied to the terracotta figures from fading after it is exposed to air and light. The earliest this work could be expected to start, apparently, is 2050.
Located about 20km north of town, the Han Yang Ling Museum contains the partly excavated mausoleum of Emperor Liu Qi and his empress. The most intact Han dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD) royal mausoleum ever discovered, this was built in 153 AD and also contains the remains of people offered up to the gods as human sacrifices. It took archaeologists over 30 years to excavate the site and make it ready for public viewing. Visitors walk over a large glasscovered floor under which can be seen partially buried objects including terracotta models of soldiers similar in idea but much smaller than the famous terracotta warriors found in the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. These clay figures originally had wooden arms and uniforms, both of which had completely rotted away by the time they were uncovered. Adjoining pits contain other standing armies of terracotta figures and types of pottery including countless figurines representing animals
The top floor of the seven-storey Wild Goose Pagoda is a great place to get panoramic views of the city of Xi’an. It is located within the compound of Ci’en Temple which was commissioned in 648 AD by the man who would later become Emperor Li Zhi of the Tang dynasty; at the time he was the crown prince. The pagoda was erected principally to store Buddhist scriptures brought to China by a monk called Xuanzang, founder of the Faxiang sect of Buddhism (aka the Consciousness Only school). In the year 629, this monk made a pilgrimage to India to research the Tripitaka , the three main categories of texts that make up the Buddhist canon. After 16 years there, he returned home with 657 Buddhist texts, of which he translated 75 into Chinese. He holds the record in China for producing the largest number of high-quality translations of Tripitaka texts, which were very influential in the centuries that followed.
Famen Temple is located about 120km west of town. The pride of Shaanxi province, it is thought to have been built some 1,800 years ago. Long regarded as a sacred place because it is said to possess a finger bone of the Lord Buddha, the temple was totally renovated in recent years. Also housed in the same compound are several large Buddha statues, a new prayer hall where relics of the Buddha are enshrined, a museum exhibiting valuable items which were found in the temple grounds and a restaurant which serves delicious vegetarian food. The Shaanxi provincial authorities are hoping to make this the second most popular tourist destination after the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang.
Located in the heart of Xi’an is a replica, built in 1986, of the old city wall. The original was built about 700 years ago and was destroyed by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution because Mao Zedong regarded it as an obstacle to municipal development. This information was supplied by local guide Zhang Yongping who also told us that the original wall was 20 times bigger than the structure one can see today. A popular tourist attraction, the reconstructed wall is still very impressive with a total length of 13km. It has a roughly rectangular shape, is 12m tall and more than 14m thick, so capacious in fact that one can walk, or even cycle, along the top. The structure is pierced by four gates and overlooked by 24 watchtowers.
This white statue commemorates Yang Guefei, the favourite consort of Emperor Xuanzong (who reigned during the 8th century). She is regarded as one of the four greatest beauties in all of Chinese history, so beautiful in fact that flowers were said to be too shy to bloom in her presence. You can find this stone memorial in the compound of Huaqing Palace, about 20km east of town, a winter residence built for the emperor so that he would bathe in local pools fed by natural hot springs. The palace and its environs have been converted into a heritage and cultural park where light-and-sound performances, celebrating the romance that blossomed between the emperor and his beloved consort, are put on during the summer months. The park also boasts a restaurant and tourist accommodation with hot-spring spa facilities.
Dominating the centre of the town, this bell-tower was built in 1384. It was rung at regular intervals to tell citizens the time during daylight hours. Not far away, a mere 400m to its west, stands the Drum Tower which once performed the same function after nightfall.
Opened in 1991, the Shaanxi History Museum is a good place to start your explorations when you hit town. With a floor area of 65,000m2, it has space to display more than 370,000 items, most of which were unearthed in various imperial tombs. The exhibits include jade objects, gold-, silver- and bronzeware, pottery figures, paintings from the Tang dynasty, porcelain, various types of Buddhist images and examples of trade goods that were once carried along the famous Silk Road.
When night falls, this small alley in the Beiyuanmen Muslim quarter is one of the busiest places in Xi’an. Dubbed ‘‘Islamic Street’’ by tourists, it is only about 500m long and is lined with shophouses selling dried fruit, various types of nuts, souvenirs (like scaled-down replicas of terracotta warriors) and handicrafts. Some 20,000 Muslims live in this neighbourhood, north of the Drum Tower. According to a local guide, this place is also a magnet because of its street food, the most popular items being grilled beef and goat’s meat, rou jia mo (a sort of Chinese hamburger) made from either beef or mutton plus various home-made noodles. One night when I was strolling along this stretch I noticed that many of the shopkeepers had set up tables in front of their premises on which were laid out foodstuffs and other offerings. Then I noticed a group of people approaching. They stopped before one little shop and said a brief prayer, before moving to the next store. I discovered that they were pilgrims who had just returned from Mecca and that the custom in these parts is to bless, on one’s return home, all those who have not yet been able to make a pilgrimage to that holy place.
- Known as Chang’an from 2 BC to 14 AD, Xi’an is one of six cities in China that have served at different periods as the capital; the others being Beijing, Luoyang, Kaifeng, Hangchow and Nanjing. Xi’an filled this role for 1,062 years during 13 different imperial dynasties including the Zhou, Qin, Han and Tang. It was only during the latter two dynasties that this metropolis became well known outside China as a commercial hub due to its location on the legendary Silk Road along which trade goods moved back and forth between East to West.
- Thai AirAsia offers a daily direct flight from Bangkok to Xi’an; it leaves from Don Mueang Airport at 9.30am. The return flight takes off from Xi’an at 3.35pm. Flying time is about four hours. For more information about the flight, visit www.airasia.com.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
- For more information, visit the city’s Tourism Administration website (http://en1.xian-tourism.com).
About the author
- Writer: Karnjana Karnjanatawe