There’s no doubting the historical pedigree of XI’AN (西安, xī’ān). Between 1000 BC and 1000 AD, it served as the imperial capital for no fewer than eleven dynasties, and as such it comes as no surprise that the place is filled with, and surrounded by, a wealth of important sites and relics. The list, which is growing with each passing decade, includes Neolithic Banpo, the Terracotta Army of the Qin emperor, the Han and Tang imperial tombs, and, in the city itself, two Tang-dynasty pagodas, the Bell and Drum towers and the Ming city walls, as well as two excellent museums holding a treasury of relics from the most glamorous parts of Chinese history.
However, visitors are also advised to prepare for a modicum of disappointment. Historically significant though it may be, today’s Xi’an is a manufacturing city of five million inhabitants, filled with traffic and prone to heavy pollution – issues that can make visits to the outlying sights a bit of a chore. Yet most visitors are able to see past these failings, perhaps best evidenced by a large foreign community, many of whom come to study, as the colleges are regarded as some of the best places to learn Chinese outside of Beijing.
Three thousand years ago, the western Zhou dynasty, known for their skilled bronzework, built their capital at Fenghao, a few kilometres west of Xi’an – one of their chariot burials has been excavated nearby. When Fenghao was sacked by northwestern tribes, the Zhou moved downriver to Luoyang and, as their empire continued to disintegrate into warring chiefdoms, the nearby Qin kingdom expanded. In 221 BC, the larger-than-life Qin Shi Huang united the Chinese in a single empire, the Qin, with its capital at Xianyang, just north of Xi’an. The underground Terracotta Army, intended to guard his tomb, are this tyrant’s inadvertent gift to today’s tourist prosperity.
His successors, the Han, also based here, ruled from 206 BC to 220 AD. Near-contemporaries of Imperial Rome, they ruled an empire of comparable size and power. Here in Xi’an was the start of the Silk Road, along which, among many other things, Chinese silk was carried to dress Roman senators and their wives at the court of Augustus. There was also a brisk trade with south and west Asia; Han China was an outward-looking empire. The emperors built themselves a new, splendid and cosmopolitan capital a few kilometres northwest of Xi’an, which they called Chang’an – Eternal Peace. Its size reflected the power of their empire, and records say that its walls were 17km round with twelve great gates. When the dynasty fell, Chang’an was destroyed. Their tombs remain, though, including Emperor Wu’s mound at Mao Ling.
It was not until 589 that the Sui dynasty reunited the warring kingdoms into a new empire, but their dynasty hardly lasted longer than the time it took to build a new capital near Xi’an, called Da Xingcheng – Great Prosperity. The Tang, who replaced them in 618, took over the capital, overlaying it with their own buildings in a rational grid plan that became the model not only for many other Chinese cities, but also the contemporary Japanese capital Hei’an (now Kyoto). During this time, the city became one of the biggest in the world, with over a million inhabitants.
The Tang period was a golden age for China’s arts, and ceramics, calligraphy, painting and poetry all reached new heights. Its sophistication was reflected in its religious tolerance – not only was this a great period for Buddhism, with monks busy translating the sutras that the adventurous monk Xuan Zong had brought back from India, but the city’s Great Mosque dates from the Tang, and one of the steles in the Provincial Museum bears witness to the founding of a chapel by Nestorian Christians.
After the fall of the Tang, Xi’an went into a long decline. It was never again the imperial capital, though the Ming emperor Hong Wu rebuilt the city as a gift for his son; today’s great walls and gates date from this time. Occasionally, though, the city did continue to provide a footnote to history. When the Empress Dowager Cixi had to flee Beijing after the Boxer Rebellion, she set up her court here for two years. In 1911, during the uprising against the Manchu Qing dynasty, the Manchu quarter in Xi’an was destroyed and the Manchus massacred. And in 1936, Chiang Kai-shek was arrested at Huaqing Hot Springs nearby in what became known as the Xi’an Incident.
- The Terracotta Army
The five peaks of Hua Shan (华山, huáshān), 120km east of Xi’an, were originally known as Xiyue (Western Mountain), because this is the westernmost of the five sacred Taoist mountains. It’s always been a popular place for pilgrimage, though these days people puffing up the steep, narrow paths or enjoying the dramatic views from the peaks are more likely to be tourists.
There’s a Chinese saying, “There is one path and one path only to the summit of Hua Shan”, meaning that sometimes the hard way is the only way. This isn’t so true today, perhaps, what with a cable car running from the east gate – the ride doesn’t go to the peak, but does put you above the toughest climbs. The original, arduous old route begins at the west gate and Yuquan Si (Jade Spring Temple), dedicated to the tenth-century monk Xiyi who lived here as a recluse. From here, every few hundred metres you’ll come across a wayside refreshment place offering stone seats, a burner, tea, soft drinks, maps and souvenirs – the higher you go, the more attractive the knobbly walking sticks on sale seem. In summer, you’ll be swept along in a stream of Chinese, mostly young couples, dressed in their fashionable, but often highly impractical, holiday finest, including high-heeled shoes.
Known as the Eighteen Bends, the deceptively easy-looking climb up the gullies in fact winds for about two hours before reaching the flight of narrow stone steps that ascend to the first summit, North Peak (1500m). The mountain was formerly dotted with temples, and there are still half a dozen. Many people turn back at this point, although you can continue to Middle Peak next, then East, West and South peaks (each at around 2000m), which make up an eight-hour circuit trail.
Though the summits aren’t that high, the gaunt rocky cliffs, twisted pines and rugged slopes certainly look like genuine mountains as they swim in and out of the mist trails. It’s quite possible to ascend and descend the mountain in a single day, especially if you use the cable car. The going is rough in places and a few of the upper paths require a head for heights, with chain handrails, wooden galleries and rickety ladders attached at difficult points. Some people arrive in the evening and climb by moonlight in order to see the sunrise over the Sea of Clouds from Middle or East Peak. If you plan to climb at night, be sure to take some warm clothes and a flashlight with spare batteries.
Shopping in Xi’an
Shopping in Xi’an
Xi’an is an excellent place to pick up souvenirs and antiques, which are generally cheaper and more varied than in Beijing, though prices have to be bartered down and the standard of goods, especially from tourist shops, is sometimes shoddy. Shopping is also an enjoyable evening activity, since the markets and department stores are open until 10pm – the Muslim Quarter and Beilin make for an entertaining stroll under the stars, where the nocturnal hawkers sell everything from dinner to souvenir silk paintings.
Xi’an has a strong artistic pedigree, and the paintings available here are much more varied in style than those you see elsewhere in China. As well as the widespread line-and-wash paintings of legendary figures, flowers and animals, look for bright, simple folk paintings, usually of country scenes. A traditional Shaanxi art form, appealing for their decorative, flat design and lush colours, these images were popular in China in the 1970s for their idealistic, upbeat portrayal of peasant life. A good selection is sold in a shop just behind the Small Goose Pagoda and in the temple compound, as well as outside the Banpo Museum. For rubbings from steles, much cheaper than paintings and quite striking, try the Big Goose Pagoda and Shuyuanmen, especially around the Beilin Museum, which is also a great area to find calligraphy and paintings. The underground pedestrian route at the South Gate includes an interesting diversion down an old bomb shelter tunnel to Nan Shang Jie, where papercuts are for sale.
Strong competition means you can pick up a painting quite cheaply if you’re prepared to bargain – a good, sizeable work can be had for less than ¥150. Beware the bright young things who introduce themselves as art students whose class happens to be having an exhibition. They’re essentially touts who will lead you to a room full of mediocre work at inflated prices.
Beiyuanmen and Huajue Xiang, the alley that runs off to the Great Mosque, are the places to go for small souvenirs, engraved chopsticks, teapots, chiming balls and the like. Clusters of stalls and vendors swarm around all the tourist sights, and are often a nuisance, though the stalls around the Great Mosque are worth checking out – you’ll see curved Islamic shabaria knives among the Mao watches and other tourist knick-knacks.
For a personalized souvenir, try the seal engravers along Shuyuanmen, where you’ll also find a variety of artists’ materials – calligraphy sets and the like.
Antiques abound in Xi’an, but be aware that many – however dusty and worn – are reproductions. The best place to go for antiques is the City Antiques Market, about a block south of the Small Goose Pagoda, on Zhuque Dajie. This is pretty good, with some genuine antiques and oddities (such as old military gear) at reasonable prices, and Mao-era artwork with price tags that show the dealers here know how much these things sell for overseas. Another good place is the market outside Baxian Gong, which is biggest on Wednesdays and Sundays; many vendors are villagers from the outlying regions who look as if they are clearing out their attics. You can find some unusual items here, such as books and magazines dating from the Cultural Revolution containing rabid anti-Western propaganda, Qing vases, opium pipes, and even rusty guns.
It would be a shame to leave Xi’an without sampling paomo (泡馍), its signature dish. This is basically a meat soup – there are both lamb (yangrou paomo) and beef (niurou paomo) versions – poured over a bowlful of tiny bread cubes. At many restaurants, diners are given discs of bread and encouraged to do the cubing themselves. Most foreigners seem to prefer the taste and texture of larger chunks – this will likely be met with a scornful look from your waitress, since locals take their time with this process, producing something almost akin to breadcrumbs. The bowl is then taken to the kitchen and piled with shredded meat and noodles, and it’s all served with cloves of pickled garlic and chilli paste for you to tip in as required.