China’s Gateway to the West – Xi’an

The Bell Tower.

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China’s modern capital is Beijing but Xi’an is the center of China’s soul and identity

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Xi’an perhaps isn’t as famous abroad as cities like Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong but anyone who’s spent any amount of time in China itself or has researched tourism in the country knows that Xi’an is considered a must-visit, especially among Chinese.  At the very least, even foreigners are familiar with the city’s famed terracotta warriors – probably China’s historic site that elicits the most intrigue, just after the Great Wall.


The individually carved warriors were built to guard the tomb of China’s First Emperor – Qin Shi Huangdi.

The warriors were the main reason I visited the city for a week in June, 2015, but I was also interested in seeing some of the sites I had heard other Chinese and foreign visitors rave about, like the Hui Muslim district and Hua Mountain.


The warriors were originally colored with pigment and holding weapons, which disintegrated over the millennia.

I boarded an overnight train in Ningbo bound for Xi’an.  When I got off the train I immediately noticed that the feeling of Xi’an is quite different from Ningbo.  Xi’an is located in China’s dry northwest and the air pollution in this region of the county is more severe than in Zhejiang on the central coast.  Ningbo was not only a treaty port in the 19th century but has been a Special Economic Zone since the early 1980s.  It’s clear when visiting Ningbo that the city has been developed for relatively longer than other Chinese cities.  Xi’an, meanwhile, has broad swaths of newly paved concrete, recently planted parks, new malls, roads and plazas all built within the last decade.  Most of these places are also swarmed with beggars and hawkers.  Much of the rest of Shaanxi Province remains impoverished and the destitute gravitate toward the capital Xi’an, looking to take advantage of Xi’an’s new status as a tourist hot-spot and regional economic hub.  In Xi’an the sheer number of illegal taxi drivers lurking outside the train station was fairly surprising, even for China.


The rank of each solider is clear – as you can see in the armor detailing, hairstyle and pose of this archer.

You get the feeling that Xi’an was recently demolished and rebuilt, all making the formidable city-wall, China’s most intact Ming Dynasty fortification, that much more prominent.  To the credit of China’s modern city-planners, the new Xi’an has been built carefully around the old wall.  In the city-center it’s never far from sight, its mighty gates serving as useful landmarks. This stands in marked contrast to urban-planning under Mao, when much of Beijing’s Ming walls were demolished.  Today all that remains are the watchtowers.  Xi’an is perhaps lucky that it escaped Communist-era “modernization.”


The terracotta warriors were just one part of the First Emperor’s tomb complex. A larger burial mound lies a mile from the warriors. This mound has yet to be excavated and is thought to house the Emperor’s body, 48 concubines who were buried alive with the Emperor and a floor cut by rivers of mercury (the rivers of the Empire) under a ceiling inlaid with pearls (the night sky).

In the late afternoon, upon arriving at my hostel after my fairly exhausting overnight train ride I wasn’t much interested in anything other than pure relaxation.  So I decided to head to the cinema and watch Jurassic World.  I wasn’t anticipating encountering anything vaguely iconic on the way to the theater, but the mall I was bound for turned out to be next to the city’s garishly lit Bell Tower.


Xi’an was once the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the world during the Tang Dynasty. Traders from all over Asia would converge on the city to sell their wares and even settle in large numbers, infusing Chinese civilization with influence form the Muslim world.

The next day I made straight for the terracotta warriors.  I had heard from other foreigners who had visited that they found the famed UNESCO site disappointing.  But as a history buff, it’s hard not to be thrilled as the sight of thousands of individually crafted statues, some still jutting from the earth in a ruined state.  For me it was like gazing at the faces of people alive thousands of years ago.


The Ming wall of Xi’an.

Later that day I investigated the Bell and Drum Towers and watched a pair of music shows in each, bells in the bell tower and drums in the drum tower.


The Ming walls of Emperor Hongwu were built on the foundations of the Tang imperial palace.

The following day I braved the crushing crowds in the Shaanxi Provincial Museum.  The exhibits inside are said to be some of China’s best with the dug up relics left behind by the numerous dynasties that called Xi’an their capital.


Later I rode a bike on top of the entirety of Xi’an’s Ming walls, one of the highlights of the trip for me.  These fortifications once marked the boundary of the Tang imperial palace.  Informative plaques along the route point out the buildings that once existed at the foot of various sections of the wall, the lore surrounding the four gates and the destruction of the palace over the centuries after the decline of the Tang.


A stele from the Qing Dynasty recounting a peasant revolt that led to the deaths of Western missionaries.

 The next day before jumping on the train back to Ningbo I visited the Beilin Stele Forest Museum, a treasure trove for history buffs.  But as someone who can’t read archaic, traditional Chinese writing, all I could do was marvel at my own ignorance of the unfathomable depths of Chinese civilization.


A stele telling of a famine in the Ming Dynasty that led to cannibalism.


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