Xi’an, How Old?
There are cities in the world that are older than Xi’an, China. Of course many of them are in Iran or Iraq, so good luck visiting them. Xi’an has mattered for something like 7000 years.
Some argue that China’s transition from neolithic farming to early urban civilization took place somewhere in this area. If you are an archeology geek, the museum and Banpo is right up you alley. Bunch of old pots and square holes in the ground to you, the story of ancient people struggling against dwindling resources to me.
The semi legendary Zhou Dynasty (during which time all was perfect, according to Confucius) was centered near Xi’an around 3500 years ago. And then there is the guy who put this place on the international tourist’s map, Qin Shi Huang Di. You might not know his name, but you would recognize his work.
Great Wall (early version), Grand Canal, unified government, oh, and the most over the top tomb complex outside of Egypt, the Terra Cotta Warriors being only one small part thereof. This is not to mention the later dynasties like the Han and the Tang that called Xi’an home.
By the time the Tang collapsed some 1000 years ago, the Xi’an had been capital for 11 dynasties. Since then, it has been somewhat of a backwater. But it did have a pretty good first 5000 years.
The consistent theme in China is change, change, change, but the pace is not quite as frantic here. Not that they are not trying. But the central part of Xi’an inside the city wall really looks much like it has for the last 20 or so years. More cars, more traffic. But most of the development is out of the city center in the high tech zone, which is really off the tourist’s track.
The real reason one comes to Xi’an is, of course, to see the Terra Cotta Army. I have been in the main excavation building maybe 30 times and I still find it breath taking.
221 BC. Some guy had 8,000 life size clay statues of soldiers made to guard his tomb. Bit extreme, but at least he did not bury his real army (some earlier Chinese kings had done so).
What you cannot get from photos or seeing a few of the soldiers on display in a museum is the sheer scale of the project. This is a full size army. In formation. You do not need much imagination to see them marching through the ancient Chinese countryside simply kicking butt. These were some scary dudes.
In one of the side halls, you can get almost face to face with a couple of the warriors who are in glass cases. The best guess is that these were all modeled on real people. So in essence, you are looking in to the face of someone who has been dead for 2,000 years. What would he think of the world today?
As long as you are in town, there is plenty to see. Great museum covering the whole span of Xi’an’s history. One really significant pagoda, if you are into the history of Buddhism. And pagodas are just cool anyway.
For us on this trip, the unexpected treat was the Mosque. Xi’an was the starting point of the Silk Road; the caravan route that linked China to the west for 2000 years. Many traders lived and worked in Xi’an, and Islam arrived in China well over 1000 years ago. So the local’s built a Mosque, which you can visit. Some of the buildings date to the Tang Dynasty, over 1000 years ago.
For us the fun part came when we ran into a couple of groups of domestic Chinese tourists; Moslem groups from Henan and Xinjiang who had seldom seen foreigners. Once they discovered that one of our group (me) spoke Chinese, we were best friends.
Somewhere in Henan, there will be dozens of pictures of the American tourists and their Chinese friends proudly displayed for years to come. Mutual curiosity is a beautiful thing!
And that is the beauty of travel, getting to intersect with the lives of people who could not be more different.
I sit here in a modern office banging on a computer and three weeks ago was laughing with a group of people who most like grew up without electricity.
If only for few moments, we were friends.
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