Tracing the origins of the Silk Road

Xi’An, 11-14 October

An easy 3 hour train ride takes us from the Shanxi Province to the Shaanxi Province. We’re now roughly 1,100 km southwest of Beijing at our second major stop Xi’An, capital of Shaanxi, and a city world-renowned for the Terracotta Army.

At first glance Xi’An is not exactly winning any beauty contests. As expected of a city with a growing population of 8.7 million people, it has plenty of skyscrapers and ongoing building development. Most of the landscape passing us by on the train today was hidden from sight by a thick blanket of grey fog and Xi’An is much the same. While the air pollution may be why so many (usually older) Chinese love, and I mean really love, to hock a loogie (loudly clear their throats and spit out the contents), it does not however explain why they also burp and fart in public with impunity (men AND women), or smack their lips when they eat, or devour whole pieces of raw garlic, but let’s not digress.

Our hotel, So Young, is situated on the 12th floor of an apartment complex inside the old town square with views over the city. It has a rooftop bar with two resident cats, and our comfortable room even has a television with pretty terrible but funny shows airing on the state channel CCTV.

Our view from the room.
Some interesting wiring next to our hotel.

It’s still quite early in the afternoon once we’ve made some plans for the next few days, so it’s time to head out and get a bit more feel for Xi’An. Similar to our previous stops of Beijing and Pingyao, Xi’An is a city which has a long and rich history. Though under various different names it was the capital city of some of the most important dynasties in Chinese history, including Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui and Tang, and is therefore named one of four Great Ancient Capitals of China. It is also the eastern terminus of the Silk Road and, as mentioned, home of the Terracotta Warriors, made during the Qin dynasty.

With over 3,100 years of history in Xi’An we assume that here might be a good place to browse around a few antiques markets but are left wanting. In place of shops and stalls we find a building site for what no doubt will be another skyscraper or apartment building. Sad, but perhaps no surprise as in recent years Xi’An, as part of the economic revival of interior China, has re-emerged as an important center for research and development, national security and space exploration.

Change is made rapidly in Xi’An and that which used to be is easily forgotten, as even the locals seem confused to find there ever was an antiques market in the place we’re standing. Lauren uses an app, which translates written English to Chinese characters and spoken Chinese back to English, which has been very handy. While one guy is helping us, a bystander joins in and soon they’re arguing over where the market may have gone. After ten minutes we’re none the wiser, so we thank them both for their efforts and decide to give up on this one, but the two men, perfect strangers before they met today, walk away as friends, chatting happily to eachother! Not such a bad result for an afternoon.

On our way back we find the pub street with Old Henry’s Bar, where we’re hoping to watch the Rugby on Sunday, and we end our day with street food from the Muslim Quarter. This network of streets offers all kinds of delicious foods which are prepared on the spot and is popular with both tourists and locals. You can find anything here, from fresh juices to spicy tofu to whole crab kebabs. We try out the Rou Jia Mo, or meat-in-a-bun, which tastes an awful lot like stovies, before some candied apple on a stick and frozen rice candy. Though satisfied for today we’re sure to return here later to try a few other things.

We’re saving the Terracotta for after the weekend to avoid some of the crowd, so on Saturday we go out to visit the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.

As part of the Da Ci’en Temple of Great Kindness and Grace, this Buddhist pagoda was originally built during the Tang Dynasty for the study of Buddhist scriptures, then following an earthquake in 1556 it was renovated during the Ming dynasty. Today the temple complex is still in use by monks.

Interesting about the Pagoda’s architecture is that its 7 storeys are built with layers of bricks without cement, in bracket style.

The Pagoda is closely connected to China’s Silk Road, as in 652 AD, the temple’s first abbott Master Xuanzang brought the precious sutra and other relics from India along the Silk Road to China and translated the valuable Buddhist text here, to be kept safe inside the Pagoda.

Monks carrying treasure up to the Pagoda.
Temple wall depicting Silk Road.
Throwing coins into the big teapot for good luck.

In the afternoon we explore the town centre. In Chinese history from Ming Dynasty each city had a Drum Tower and a Bell Tower. In old times the bell was sounded at dusk and the drum at dawn.

Xi’An Drum Tower

The Da Ci’en temple has their own smaller version of these towers, which were used to give the monks instructions throughout the day, and we find out what they look like on the inside.

Big drum and walls covered in resonating plates. The sound is supposed to resemble a lion’s roar.

On Sunday we’re taking it easy with a nice leisurely stroll along the city wall. Known as the Fortifications of Xi’An, the wall encloses an area of about 14 square km and is one of the oldest, largest and best preserved city walls in China. Built in the 14th century as a military defense system, it still exhibits the complete features of the rampart architecture of feudal society.

Typical Xi’An day with low levels of visibility.

There are four gates in total of which the south gate is the largest and most decorated. Each gate has three gate towers, called Zhenglou, Jianlou and Zhalou. The outermost gate is Zhalou, used to raise and lower the suspension bridge. Jianlou is the middle gate with small windows on its front and sides, and was used as defensive lookout. Zhenglou, the inner gate, is the main entrance to the city. The Jianlou and Zhenglou are connected by the wall. Soldiers were stationed in the area between these towers, called Wong Cheng.

Eastern Zhenglou with sloped horse passages leading up from Wong Cheng.
Eastern Jianlou.
View from one of the front windows at eastern Jianlou.

The vantage point of the city wall provides an interesting contrast between the old and the new city.

We finish our walk at the main gate on the south side of the wall.

Traditional neighbourhood viewed from the south wall.
Southern Zhenglou and Jianlou.
South gate entrance

The Terracotta Army

We’re saving the best for last with our visit to the Terracotta Army, a massive collection of clay statues from the late 3rd century BCE, which has captivated audiences all over. Here in Lintong County, just outside Xi’An, they were discovered by local farmers back in 1977, and have since been displayed throughout the entire world.

The Terracotta Army depicts the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, and were buried alongside him to protect the emperor in the afterlife. It is estimated that the three pits containing the Army hold more than 9,000 figures.

The figures vary in height according to their roles, with the tallest being the generals. They include warriors, chariots and horses. Other, non-military figures, such as acrobats and musicians, were also found.

The wooden chariots have all disintegrated.

Each figure is uniquely different and some even bear the artist’s signature.

Excavation work is still being carried out, even during our visit. Every complete figure has been painstakenly re-assembled usually from hundreds of broken pieces. Esspecially the faces require a lot of restoration, which is why a lot of figures are currently headless.

I can definitely recommend visiting Xi’An, we’ve had a great time here and the Terracotta Warriors have been a big highlight for us on our China trip! Tomorrow we’re taking the slow train eastward to Luoyang in the Henan province, another one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China.

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