Xian

 
3 Days Xi'an Tour: Five-Star:Shangri-La Hotel | Deluxe: Grand New World Hotel

It is said of the famous English translator of Chinese literature, Arthur Waley, that he never wished to visit modern China, so as to keep intact his vision of ancient China—a vision he had built up carefully through his knowledge of classical texts. It is also said that, in his mind’s eye, he could take a walk through the Tang dynasty capital of Chang’an—the city known today as Xi’an—and be familiar with all the city districts, their businesses and specialities. In modern Xi’an, the provincial capital of Shaanxi Province, it takes a great feat of the imagination to believe that this dusty, unassuming city was the site of 11 Chinese dynastic capitals, spanning more than a thousand years. But in fact the loess plains around Xi’an and the River Wei, which flows close to Xi’an and empties into the Yellow River, lie at the heart of Chinese civilization and are a continual source of new archaeological discoveries, the most famous of these being the extraordinary terracotta army of the first emperor of China. It is these discoveries which have made—and will continue to make—Xi’an one of the most popular destinations for Western visitors to China today.




The Terracotta Army

 
The Terracotta Army was discovered in 1974 by peasants digging a well during a drought. The excavation site is in Lintong County, a few miles distant from the actual burial mound of the emperor. Visitors can climb the mound, but the burial chambers have not yet been excavated for fear of damage to the delicate treasures which are thought to lie within. History tells of the tomb being sealed with traps of poisoned arrows to deter violation. However, it is known that the tomb was looted during the Han dynasty, and one wonders how much is left inside. Archaeological work is taking place at the surrounding burial mounds.

Excavation has continued sporadically since the discovery of the Terracotta Army. All three pits are now open. In Pit Number One, which is larger than a football pitch, so far more than 2,000 of the estimated 6,000 warriors and horses have beenexcavated. Pit Number Three, though small, is thought to be the garrison headquarters of the Qin army. Excavations can be seen proceeding in Pit Number Two, which is believed to represent a Qin period military encampment (the site was opened to the public in October 1994). The soldiers are either standing or kneeling. A selection of the figures is displayed in glass cases, and you can see that each warrior is larger than lifesize, and that hairstyles and details of uniform vary according to rank. The figures were originally painted but the colours have leached away. Wooden implements have also rotted, but the original metal weapons have survived. The arrowheads do indeed have poisoned lead tips. Chariots of bronze with figures cast in bronze have also been unearthed in the vicinity.
 




Buddhist Temples

 

In the Tang dynasty, Chang’an was not only a city of vast wealth but also a prominent religious centre, with Buddhist pilgrims from Central Asia and India arriving to teach and live in the capital. During this period, the monk Xuanzang went to India to bring back Buddhist scriptures for translation. Scholars from Japan and Korea also came to Chang’an to study Buddhism, and much of the temple architecture that survives in Japan today was directly inspired by the buildings of the Tang era.

Sadly, little remains of Tang dynasty architecture in modern Xi’an, or elsewhere in China, because of an extensive religious persecution undertaken by Tang emperor Wuzong in the mid-eighth century. However, many fine Buddhist sites do remain, the most famous of which are the Big Goose Pagoda and the Little Goose Pagoda in the city centre, both of which formed part of large religious establishments which now no longer exist. The seven-storey Big Goose Pagoda was built in 652 at the request of the pilgrim monk, Xuanzang. It is adjacent to the Da Ci’en Temple, of which only a portion remains after the destructions during Wuzong’s reign. The Little Goose Pagoda, built in 707, originally had 15 storeys, but the top two storeys collapsed in an earthquake in 1556. Both pagodas are fine examples of Tang masonry, displaying bold, simple lines on a square plan. You can climb to the top of both pagodas through the interior staircases, with the Little Goose Pagoda offering a particularly fine view over the city to the north


 




City Sights

 

The city of Xi’an as it is laid out today dates from the Ming dynasty, and is much smaller in size than it was in Tang times. You can get an idea of its scale during the Ming by strolling along the ramparts of the city walls, which have been renovated in recent years; visitors usually gain access at the South Gate, although several other gates are also open. The wall is open from 7am to 10.30pm and is attractively lit at night. Other Ming sites worth visiting are all easily accessible and within close walking distance of each other: the Bell Tower, the Drum Tower and the Great Mosque.

The Bell Tower and Drum Tower now face each other across a newly-built square. The bell in question was used to signal the dawn when the city gates opened, and the drum the dusk when they closed. Both towers are open daily. The Drum Tower overlooks the main Muslim quarter of the city. Five minutes’ walk from the Drum Tower is the Great Mosque. The original mosque dates to 743 and was built by Persian merchants who settled in Xi’an during the open era of the Tang dynasty. The mosque was originally located near the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and moved to its current location during the early Ming dynasty (late 14th century). The design of the mosque is unusual, even in China, melding a traditional Chinese temple layout (a Chinese pagoda serves as the minaret) with Arabic and Persian embellishments. The prayer hall includes original 14th century wood carvings and, a more recent addition, all 30 books of the Koran carved by local craftsmen in both Arabic and Chinese scripts mounted on the walls.