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Xi’an: The Eternal City

The Terracotta Warriors

The Terracotta Warriors are a collection of sculptures depicting the armies of Shi Huangdi, the First Emperor of China.

Xi’an, the eternal city, records the great changes of the Chinese nation just like a living history book. Called Chang’an in ancient times, Xi’an is one of the birthplaces of the ancient civilization in the Yellow River Basin area of the country. During Xian’s 3,100 year development, 13 dynasties—such as Western Zhou (11th century BC – 771 BC), Qin (221 BC – 206 BC), Western Han (206 BC – 24 AD) and Tang (618 – 907)—placed their capitals here. Xi’an enjoys equal fame with Athens, Cairo, and Rome as one of the four major ancient civilization capitals.

Xi'an city gates at night

Xi'an's city gates at night

The cultural and historical significance of the area, as well as the abundant relics and sites, help Xi’an enjoy the laudatory title of ‘Natural History Museum’. The Museum of Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses is praised as ‘the eighth major miracle of the world’, Mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang is listed on the World Heritage List, and the City Wall of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) is the largest and most intact Ming Dynasty castle in the world. In the city, there is the 3,000 year old Banpo Village Remains from the Neolithic Age (approximately from 8000 BC to 5000 BC), and the Forest of Stone Steles that holds 3,000 stone steles of different periods from the Han Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty.

Market in the Muslim Quarter

The Market in the Muslim Quarter

We visited Xi’an on May 6-8, 2010, as part of our trip through Asia. Scott joined us, the three of us arriving early afternoon on May 6.  After Laura insisted we change hotels to flee some nasty cigarettes stench, we hit the Muslim Quarter for some lunch. Xian’s Muslim Quarter, a remnant of the Silk Road trade, is home to around 30,000 people of the city’s Hui (Chinese Muslim) population.  The narrow, twisting streets are full of butcher’s shops, restaurants, food stalls, sesame -oil factories, souvenir shops and tea shops.  We filled up on some lamb-on-a-stick and fried quail eggs.

Fried Quail

Fried Quail on a stick

Xi'an's Msulim Quarter

Laura can't take Xi'an's squalor peddlers

Traditional downtown Xi’an refers to the area encircled by the city wall, this has now been expanded to encompass the area within the second ring road (Er’ huan Lu).  After lunch, we ascended the wall and walked its perimeter around the ancient city.

Xi'an's city wall

Atop Xi'an's city wall, the ancient city lays on one side while a booming industrial metropolis rises on the other

Xi’an’s city wall, built initially during the old Tang dynasty (618 -907), is the most complete city wall that has survived in China, as well being one of the largest ancient military defensive systems in the world. The wall now stands 12 meters (40 feet) tall, 12-14 meters (40-46 feet) wide at the top and 15-18 meters (50-60 feet) thick at the bottom. It covers 13.7 kilometers (8.5 miles) in length with a deep moat surrounding it. Every 120 meters, there is a rampart which extends out from the main wall. All together, there are 98 ramparts on the wall, which were built to defend against the enemy climbing up the wall. Each rampart has a sentry building, in which the soldiers could protect the entire wall without exposing themselves to the enemy. Besides, the distance between every two ramparts is just within the range of an arrow shot from either side, so that they could shoot the enemy, who wanted to attack the city, from the side. On the outer side of the city wall, there are 5,948 crenellations, namely battlements.  On the inner side, parapets were built to protect the soldiers from falling off.

Ascending Xi'an's City Wall

Ascending Xi'an's City Wall

Xi'an's City Wall

Atop Xi'an's City Wall

After touring the city from above, we descended the South Gate and strolled through Shu Yuan Men, a street in the style of ancient towns. Both sides of the slab stone road are lined with buildings in the Ming and Qing styles. Various crafts and arts are sold on this crowded street, including historical relics, calligraphy, paintings, antiques, jewels, and folk art. As evening set in, we made our way to Defu Xiang, or Bar Street.

Bar Street

Bar Street in Xi'an is where all the, er, bars are.

Defu Xiang is a small street stuffed with over 20 small bars and cafes, all merged together.  Overall, Xi’an is not terribly exciting for nightlife but it does offer an interesting atmosphere for lengthy exploration.  Wandering through the city you may stumble across the odd mahjong game or find performers along the city halls at night.  Scott and I did just this (Laura called it an early night), making our way around the wall and ultimately back to the Muslim Quarter, where we ate up a couple bowls of Niu Yang Rou Pau Mo.

Mahjong in Xi'an

Mahjong enenving games in Xi'an

Niu Yang Rou Pau Mo

Eating some Niu Yang Rou Pau Mo

Niu Yang Rou Pau Mo (crumbled unleavened bread soaked in mutton stew) is a local dish that is enjoyed throughout Shaanxi Province but is particularly popular in Xi’an City as a traditional nourishing meal.  The custom for serving Niu Yang Rou Pau Mo is both unique and interesting.  You’re given a large bowl and a quantity of round, flat unleavened bread (nan bread). The amount of bread depends entirely upon the size of your appetite! You have to break the bread into small pieces so that it can absorb the flavor of the liquid.  Once you have prepared your bread, you pass your bowl to the chef who will stir it into a pot of hot mutton soup. After some five to ten minutes he will ladle the soup and bread back into your bowl with some chunks of mutton.  Adding chili paste, caraway and a specially salted sweet garlic enhances the dish. These together act to reduce the greasiness so often associated with mutton.  Okay, it does not sound that tasty, but it is in fact delicious.

After slurping up our Niu Yang Rou Pau Mo, Lou lost two consecutive arm-wrestling to one of the local show-offs.  Totally humiliated, we called it a night.

The next day we toured some of the historical sites located outside the ancient city.  First, we visited Ban Po Village.  Banpo is a village that existed some 6,000 years ago near Xi’an in the Shaanxi Province of China. Artifacts that have been unearthed from the Banpo site are all that remains of this prehistoric clan-based community. The village grounds occupied a physical area of 50,000 square meters, and consisted primarily of a residential section, a pottery area, and burial grounds. Five excavations that were conducted from 1953 to 1957 revealed the remains of 45 houses, 200-odd storage pits, 6 kilns, 250 tombs, and more than 10,000 stone tools and everyday articles.

The Terracotta Warriors

The Terracotta Warriors

Next we visited the Terracotta Warriors. The Terracotta Warriors represent only a small portion of the eight thousand strong underground army buried in front of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s tomb (r. 221-207 BC) to defend him in the afterlife.  One of the most important rulers in Chinese history, this emperor leaves a morally complicated legacy.  Made king of the state of Qin at the age of thirteen, by the time he was thirty-eight he conquered the six neighboring states to unify China for the first time.   To synthesize seven separate states into one nation, he standardized a common script and established uniform measurement and monetary systems. For effective government, he codified a legal system and replaced hereditary rulers with a centrally appointed administrative system. To improve industrial productivity he encouraged agricultural reforms and constructed many roads. And in an effort to limit the inroads of barbarian tribes, he supervised the construction of a defence fortification along the northern frontier, the first Great Wall.

Although China benefited from these policies, thousands of Chinese workers died in completing this far-reaching public works program. 700,000 forced laborers were sacrificed to construct his tomb which was begun as soon as he ascended the throne. All workers and childless concubines were interred with him to safeguard its secrets. The craftsmanship attested by each of the statues is as stupendous as the scale of the project.

An unauthorized photograph of one of the farmers who discovered the warriors.

An unauthorized photograph of one of the farmers who discovered the warriors.

The terracotta army was discovered in 1974 when some farmers were digging a well. Their shoveling began the unearthing of a huge burial pit.  You’ll find one of the farmers at the site, autographing books for a nominal “donation.”  You’re not permitted to photograph him (though, I’m sure another donation will bend that rule).  This notwithstanding, Scott managed to snipe a photo.

Qin Shi Huang's tomb

Qin Shi Huang's tomb rises as a verdant pyramid in the background

We next visited Qin Shi Huang’s tomb.  Traditional Chinese geomancy has it that the area between the Lishan Mountains and Mount Hua is shaped like a dragon. The imperial tomb, inside Li Mountain, is said to be positioned at the eye of the dragon.

The mountain itself, which is covered in trees and vegetation, is roughly as big as the Great Pyramid of Giza, and covers an area of about one square mile. It was once perhaps twice as big, but it’s been worn down by 2,000 years of erosion to its current dimensions. But that’s beside the point, because to judge the scale of the First Emperor’s Tomb simply on the basis of the mountain he’s buried within would be misleading.

Qin Shi Huang firmly believed that he was to live on in the afterlife, so he wanted to ensure he had a powerful setup there, one befitting his standing. He had entire area many kilometres wide surrounding Li Mountain transformed into an overground and underground city, protected by his own personal honor guard, the stunning Terracotta Warriors.

The best available source on the contents of Qin Shi Huang’s final resting place itself is the Shiji, or Records of the Grand Historian, by Sima Qian – a Prefect of the Grand Scribes of the Han Dynasty. It was composed a century after the First Emperor’s death.

It reads like a work of extreme fantasy. Sima Qian reports that 700,000 workers were employed to burrow through three rivers, and fill the space with bronze. Then artisans apparently carved a map of the entire Qin kingdom on the floor, laced the ceiling with jewels to represent to sky, and created rivers and oceans with quicksilver – that is, liquid mercury (which was widely believed to have life-preserving powers in Qin times). A special machine was even apparently conceived to keep the mercury rivers flowing.

Huaquing Hot Springs

Huaquing Hot Springs

Our next stop was the Huaqing Hot Springs. The Huaqing Hot Springs have been the “it” place for imperial bathing pools and various palace complexes over 3,000 years.  Seriously, anyone who’s anyone would luxuriate in this must-be-seen-at, ancient hot (literally) spot.  (By the way, in the photo below, Laura is really starting to show the Lil’ Man.)

Huaquing Hot Springs - The heat is on

Someone has left the hot water running for 3,000 years!

Afterwards, we returned to the ancient city so that Scott could satisfy his Niu Yang Rou Pau Mo fix.  He had to head back to Shanghai early and, apparently, they just don’t know how to make good mutton there.

Scott likes Niu Yang Rou Pau Mo

Scott likes Niu Yang Rou Pau Mo

We spent the evening hanging out at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. The Big (or Giant) Wild Goose Pagoda was built in 652 during the Tang Dynasty. It originally had five stories which collapsed after five years. It was rebuilt in 704 and five new stories were added, three of which were destroyed in a massive earthquake in 1556, leaving the modern stucture of seven stories. There is still a decided lean to the pagoda.

The Big Goose Pagoda

The Big Goose Pagoda

One of the many attractions in the surrounding area is the musical fountain in the square in front of the pagoda.   The synchronization’s of the water and music is fascinating: 1024 nozzles shooting water, creating waves and shapes over 60 meters high, with lights below in a variety of colors  illuminating the sky and water.  Did we mention all this goes on to the melodies of the world’s the largest-scale acoustic complex.  Pretty neat stuff.

On our last day in Xi’an, May 8, we visited the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower.

The Bell Tower

The Bell Tower is the geographical center of Xi'an

Standing at the crossing of the East, West, South, and North avenues in city proper, the Bell Tower is the geographical center of Xi’an. The symbol of Xi’ an. the tower was originally built in 1348, toward the end of the Yuan Dynasty, and was moved to the present site in 1552, during the Ming Dynasty. It was rebuilt and enlarged during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).  There used to be a huge iron bell hung in the tower, which was used to strike the hours. After the bell fell from its operating position it was placed on the northwest corner of base.

Concert in the Bell Tower

Concert in the Bell Tower

Inside the Bell tower, there is a performing stage with various types of bells and other musical instruments on display. There are daily musical performances on stage.

Xi'an's Drum Tower Banging a drum

The Drum Tower, across from the Bell Tower and the square, is a similar structure to the Bell Tower. It was erected in 1380, also during the Ming Dynasty. The Drum Tower got its name from the huge drum hung within it. The bell was struck at dawn and the drum was beaten at sunset to indicate the end of the day.

Dumplings in the Muslim Quarter

"Bespoke" dumplings in the Muslim Quarter

We had a bit more time before we had to catch a plane to Beijing—enough time to take explore the Muslim Quarter some more and lunch on a few cents worth of some freshly made dumplings that had been made on that very spot for centuries.

Xi’an is truly a trip. It sits on an ancient site and there are layers of cities of different names beneath and around you.  It’s imbued with the ancient and bustling with the modern.  Below is a photo gallery of our visit. Click on any of the thumbnails to expand the picture, as well as view the caption and cycle through the entire gallery.

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