Xi’an at a Glance

(October, 2006)

In this mid-October, I visited Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province which is in the northwest of China, together with two American friends and a senior university student who was born in Xi’an. My time in Xi’an was limited. I only stayed there for three nights and four days. Xi’an is a living history book of China, which enjoys equal fame with Athens, Cairo and Rome as one of the four major ancient civilization capitals.

Upon our arrival, I was overwhelmed by the inner city wall surrounded the heart of the city, and by the solemn Bell Tower which sits in the center of the city, facing against its “twin brother” — the Drum Tower. At night, these two ancient architectures were brightly lit up, remarkably appealing. It was irresistible for me to climb up the Drum Tower. I could overlook the hustling and bustling city from a higher angle. As every road leads to Rome, there are four main streets from north, south, east and west ended in the Drum Tower. It was so superior to stand on the tallest level of the tower that I almost forgot time to come down.

Xi’an used to be the capitals for 13 dynasties, including as far as Western Zhou (11th century B.C.–71B.C.) to the most prosperous period — the Tang Dynasty (618–907A.D.). So you can imagine how busy our itinerary was to learn a city with a history of thousands of years in four days. There are too many things to see in Xi’an. Although I have learned most of the Chinese history from textbooks, I could absorb new things like sponge every day. As my dad said, in Xi’an you can learn much about ancient China whose household utensils are mainly made of clay, ceramic, bronze, gold, silver and tin. While you will find more porcelain antiques in the area of Yangtze River Delta like Shanghai, Nanjing and Suzhou. The spectacular Shaanxi History Museum in Xi’an demonstrated my dad’s remark. You won’t find a piece of porcelain in this museum but tons of priceless cultural relics dated from prehistory through those 13 dynasties related to Yellow River Basin. Following Yangtze River, Yellow River ranked the second largest river in China. The history of humanity in China originated from Yellow River Basin. If you are a history buff, it is worthwhile staying in the museum for a whole day. The museum inside is like a little UN that various languages can be heard. (I only could recognize Cantonese, Japanese, French and Spanish.) I hadn’t been to an indoor museum like this one with so many tourist groups from all over the world. Is this called “cultural globalization”?

Another example of “cultural globalization” belongs to the world-famous Terracotta Warriors and Horses, which is praised as “the eighth wonder of the world.” It is a sight not to be missed by any visitor to China. There are a total of three pits in the museum. Pit 1 is the largest and most fascinating among all. Every warrior has its own unique armor, hairstyle, pose and even facial expression. The only unity is the alignment of these warriors and horses — every three warriors in a row leads four horses, and every chariot is towed by four horses. Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor who unified the whole China, had begun to work for his mausoleum at the age of 13. I was astounded when seeing such a great excavation just at my feet. What an enormous project especially when everything was so primitive back in 246 B.C.!!!

Not far away from the “Terracotta” is the Huaqing Pool, a royal recreational paradise which is famed for both its dainty spring scenery and the romantic love story of Emperor Xuanzong (685–762 A.D.) and his concubine Lady Yang Guifei in Tang Dynasty. If “Terracotta” were a masculine hulk full of grandeur, Huaqing Pool would be an enchanting lady full of elegance. From the hot spring pools used by emperors and their royal members, and the layout of the palace, I could imagine what an imperial life of luxury and carpe diem back then.

We actually relived a small part of the ancient “Silk Road” on the third day. Xi’an used to be the starting point of the “Silk Road.” Quite different from the eastward journey on the previous day, the journey to the west was comparatively long and bleak. Instead of seeing tour buses of all sizes, there were a number of overloaded trucks tagged along with thick smoke and sandy dust, running like an enraged bull on the undeveloped highway. We visited the Qianling Mausoleum, which buried the first emperor of Tang Dynasty and his wife, Wu Zetian, who was the only empress in China. On our way back, we dropped by at Famen Temple, which keeps the finger bones of Sakyamuni — the founder of Buddhism. If you are religious, you may visit the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, too. It used to be a private pagoda during the Tang Dynasty. We only passed by it before we headed to The Forest of Stone Tablets Museum, which exhibits numerous calligraphy and drawings on the stone tables.

The only shame on this trip is I didn’t climb up to the City Wall. Yet, I had the most extravagant dinner with palatial dancing and singing of the Tang Dynasty. The dinner cost about 50 USD/per person. (Holy Moses!) The performance was superb. It is not difficult to tell how prosperous the Tang Dynasty was from the splendid costume of the performers. The seats were mostly taken by western tour groups. It’s one more example of “cultural globalization.”

The trip to Xi’an is breathtaking. What I learned from history class is simply not enough to understand this historic city. And the time we had does not suffice to see it all in Xi’an. A road of a thousand miles begins with one step. And this step to Xi’an has enabled me to experience the Chinese culture of 5000 years.

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