Location: Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, China
The only location we visited that could tell you more about the history of China in one glance than Beijing is Xi’an. We only spent 3 days here, and they flew by. Though it is large, the city of 9 million seems almost quaint in comparison to the other megalopolises, and the people were kind as well as knowledgable about the immense amount of artifacts contained within the city’s walls.
Simply put- Xi’an is over 3000 years old. Though today it is merely the capital of Shaanxi Province, it is one of the 4 great ancient capitals from before the Ming Dynasty. It was the capital of China throughout many of its most prosperous times and during some of its most important eras. Today, it exists as a major destination city for university students (with more schools per capita than even the largest cities) as well as an important location for scientific research. Our tour guide graduated from a school in Xi’an, and she was by far the most well-traveled and the most proficient in English of any person we have met thus far. It is also the location of China’s Space Exploration program, which you might know just sent a rover to the moon, making it the third country in the world to do so.
We found the city very pleasant because it has been slow to develop, and tourism has only become a major industry in recent decades because of the world famous discovery of the Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses. Naturally, it was the first thing we went to see. The pits are located on (what used to be) farmland about an hour outside the city center. Apparently, if you went a few years ago, you could just walk in an look at the wonder free of charge. Today, an extensive museum and excavation site has sprung up around them to compete with a growing international tourist presence. It is completely understandable why.
The Warriors are one of the most incredible things I have had the privilege to see. What are they? Sculptures found in the tomb of the very first emperor of China- Qin Shi Huang. His loyal subjects worked for the entire duration of his life to complete the project, depicting life-size replicas of his vast army (complete with soldiers of every rank, horses, carriages, musicians, acrobats, and even weapons) all created from Terra cotta clay that has been native to Shaanxi Province for centuries. He was entombed, and these intricate sculptures were buried with him. No one knows exactly how many there are near his mausoleum. Thus far, three pits are open for public viewing (over 8,000 specimens). But, there are at least 5 more that are closed off for archeological research.
Even more amazing than the necropolis itself is the story behind it’s discovery. A young farmer was digging a well on his property, and he just happened to stumble upon the corner of the main pit. Eventually, thousands of workers came in to excavate. Imagine their shock! It’s said that when then-President Bill Clinton came to visit The Warriors, he found the farmer and thanked him for his amazing anthropological contribution, but when he asked for an autograph, the farmer was discovered to be illiterate. Bill hired a professional calligrapher to teach him printing, and now he is a famous artist himself! Though he is older now- in his upper ’60’s- he also works at the museum, sometimes, taking photos and signing copies of the book sold about the history of the site. And, in the luckiest turn of fortune, we got to meet him! He was there when we visited, and he shook my hand so sincerely. The photograph with him is something I will treasure forever.
We also had to opportunity to visit the factory where authentic replicas of these figures are created. We learned how they are manufactured and why they are so durable that they could survive for thousands of years despite fires and other natural phenomena. We can now spot a fake from miles away! But, if you want to be certain, the real ones are so tough you can stand with your full weight on even the smallest size model.
Outside achieving this life goal, we were not surprised to discover that there are historical sights around every corner in Xi’an. There is the Regional History Museum- two floors jam packed with artifacts recovered from this area in only the last decade, and the Wild Goose Pagoda- the best lasting example of architecture from the Tang Dynasty. The Bell Tower and Drum Tower are prominently displayed in a major intersection. The City Wall (used in ancient times to keep out foreign invaders) is immediately visible as the dividing line between the city’s residential district and businesses.
As the birthplace of Feng shui, atop the Wall is also the sight of the original Feng Shui museum, where we were shown tips on how to keep our homes/bodies in harmony with the surrounding environment and keep our Qi happy. We were also heavily encouraged to purchase some Feng Shui animals in a variety of materials to place outside our doors. We politely declined. We also saw a phenomenal Tang Dynasty show accompanied by a dumpling buffet complete with traditional instruments and dancing typical of the region during that time.
In our own exploration, we managed to find the flea market. Though a brief visit to this magical amalgamation of Gucci knock-offs; bamboo flutes; terra cotta models (real and fake); antiques; and street food, I was able to see how some out-lying cultural groups live in China. I was also able to taste the best fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice I have ever had.
Overall, the city was charming and well-maintained. The lights on the trees lining the streets at night was breathtaking. See for yourself! During our visit we got to meet a national hero face-to-face, see a world wonder, and taste dumplings in over 300 varieties. In only 3 days, I would say that’s a success.
Stay tuned for info about our time in Shanghai and a neat video K is putting together of us traveling on sleeper trains throughout China!
Stay happy and healthy.