Xian, China, a city that’s like reading a history book

Jerry, a most knowledgeable guide, says that the real theme of today’s city of Xi’an in China should be cranes..not the ones that fly but those spreading over the skyline after buildings have been razed and quickly replaced by huge buildings.

Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province and one of the oldest capital in the world with a history of 3000 years, is where the Silk Road began in the 15th ( historians say is was 138 BC) and then stretched west. These days it’s known mainly for the wondrous Qin Terra Cotta warriors and horses, seem to be in combat for importance considering there is so much more to see in this so called small city with a population of 8 million. This is considered, just a tiny dot compared to cities like Shanghai and Beijing where the populations are in the double digit millions.

When I was last here, about two decades ago, trying to cross a street meant dodging oncoming bicycles that whizzed by in every which way, no direction seemed to hinder their travels. However, now with the new wealth, bikes have been replaced by millions of cars and thousands of motorcycles, but the roads are even more hazardous. That said, the amazing accomplishment is that the streets are kept spotless, there are great new, wonderfully paved roadways and wide boulevards. Mansions that could easily be anywhere in the affluent world, straddle the streets, often without any nod to Chinese symbols, many far too westernized for my liking. Money flows in from the 2 million plus visitors annually who come to see this ancient capita.

No question, the first on every visitors’ list is the eighth wonder of the world, the Qin Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses. With 8000 larger than life figures, all different, with intricate different hair styles and clothing, a few with the original coloration, staring up from Pit one, it is a breathless sight. Eventually, it’s estimated that there will be more warriors once all are excavated and pieced together. At Pit 2 and 3 there are more excavations as tiny pieces of animals, chariots and warriors, are meticulously matched.

Since a few noted Canadian museums exhibited only a handful of warriors, the Xi’an exhibit has created enormous interest and seeing the ‘army’ in their original venue has increased the amount of visitors. Here, there is such a well deserved pride about these tremendous discoveries that the hall is filled with Chinese families, often with tots in tow, as astonished as foreigners. And although there are many tourists, for locals, Westerners are still somewhat of a curiosity since I was asked to have my photo taken with a few young stylish young teenage Chinese girls using the back drop of the mighty warriors.

Although there’s no diminishing the importance and impact of Qin Terra Cotta site, there is more to do in Xi’an. Huaqing Hot Springs, about 30 K (18 miles) from Xian at the foot of the Black Horse Mountain, was a favorite spa during the Tang Dynasty. Yang Yuhuan, the concubine who was loved by Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty, is said to have been able to bring about the Emperor’s downfall, by Yuhuan’s constant needs, beauty and power. The hot spring complex was destroyed at the end of the dynasty but the Imperial bathing pools from (AD 619-07) were re discovered in 1982 and also uncovered were the remains of the bathing pools — The Star, Long, Lotus and Guifei pools, all at about 43C degrees. A few are open to the public for a small admission charge. But since it was quite cold while I was there, I didn’t see many taking to their swim suits.

The scenic beauty remains and there’s a serenity that captures the romantic environment with the mountains as a backdrop to the stunning buildings and the various shapes of the hot spring pools. In the centre of the courtyard, brimming with tourists, is a pure white marble, curvaceous statue of Yang Yhuan which shows her beauty, perhaps a little overindulgent since her curves look as though a very good plastic surgeon had a hand in creating this piece of art. Of course, there were none at the time but even in stone, this concubine certainly is spell binding. As the poet Bai Juyi wrote, “the warm water slipped down, her glistening jade like body”.

The Big Goose Pagoda (“Great Wild Goose pagoda) in Da Ci en Temple, the most famous Buddhist temple where many Buddhist scriptures brought from India, were kept and preserved, is among the most beautiful building in Xi’an. The pagoda was completed in 652AD but its name has never been satisfactorily explained. As throughout all the major sightseeing sites in this country, there are throngs of people and more often than not, guides explaining the architectural value and history. It’s smart to be here in early morning since the crowds become huge by noon.

The 13 storey Little Goose Pagoda (Lesser Wild Goose pagoda) is another of Xi’ans’ major landmarks and because of the precious relics, is under state protection and considered one of the two important symbols of the Tang Dynasty.

Every traveler’s list in Xi’an should include The Bell Tower and The Drum Tower, originally built in 1384, both architectural feats. However, getting through the crowd is a modern day feat in itself, but well worth it. The two are both quite similar in style. The Bell so very heavy, was sounded at dawn while the Drum at dusk. Incense permeates the air as many people buy the sticks, place them in a huge wrought iron container and when lit, pray for their needs and wants and hopes.

Of course, like most warring ancient cities, there’s a city wall. But this is special. It’s the most complete ancient wall in the world the Ming Dynasty from 1638-1644. And it’s possible to walk on the top and get the very best view of this extraordinary city. As with most ancient walls, there’s a moat, gate tower, a watchtower and here, there’s also a hanging bridge. It is a masterpiece of ancient construction.

There are certainly hotels in every price range and elaborate restaurants that often have Tang dynasty shows which are colorful, well staged and filled with tourists.

Xian is a city worth taking time to walk around and discover more than what you read in guide books or online. It’s a busy city with so many interesting little streets to discover, so many sights to see. And if you’re only visiting for a day or two, the time disappears like the puff of smoke from the incense sticks.

Confucius must have a saying about how to manage time. I must look it up when I have a few minutes.

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