The Silk Route – Xi’an

Xi’an (meaning ‘Western Peace’) was one of the ancient capitals of the Chinese empire. Xi’an was also the easternmost point of the Silk Road. 

About 30 years ago, Xi’an became an important city on the tourist map after the ‘Terracotta Army’ was discovered here in 1974. The Terracotta Army is a part of the funerary retinue buried with China’s ‘First Emperor’ Qin Shi Huang. The belief in those times was that these terracotta figures will come to life in the Emperor’s afterlife and aid him in his afterlife. Qin Shi Huang, often considered China’s Julius Caesar, was a powerful and ruthless ruler who unified most of China’s warring states under one imperial ruler. His funerary retinue is so massive that it is believed to have extended for a one mile radius around his burial mound. A part of this, the Terracotta Army we know today, was discovered by farmers digging a well in 1974. Around that discovery a total of 3 pits have been excavated since. The rest of the Emperor’s terracotta retinue is yet to be discovered or forever lost in time. These 3 pits contained Terracotta warriors, archers, generals, cavalry men, horses, chariots etc. Estimates – 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which are yet to be completely excavated from the 3 pits by the Chinese government. Most of the terracotta figures were found charred and broken. There is a historical explanation for the condition in which they were found. Qin Shi Huang had many enemies. After his death, a bitter enemy general and his men broke into his tombs, destroyed many of the terracotta statues and set fire to large sections of the burial objects in an attempt to weaken the Emperor in his afterlife. An act of pure spite! Scientists have painstakingly restored many of the broken figures.

When we landed in Xian on 21 April 2010, we were surprised by how small the city really was. Coming in from Beijing the Xi’an looked much less crowded and welcoming to us. The day we arrived we decided to visit the Great Mosque of Xi’an, the Muslim market around it and the rest of Xi’an downtown. Getting to our destination in a taxi was no problem as we only had to show the taxi driver the Chinese characters scribbled by the receptionist at the hotel where we were staying. To get back, we had to show the taxi driver a card from the hotel that read “I stay at ___ Please take me to ___” with the hotel details in Chinese characters.

The two easily recognizable structures right in the center of the city are the the Bell Tower (with a huge bell that was used to announce time in olden days) and the Drum Tower (with many drums; also used to announce time). Just as we approached the city center, we saw a well restored city wall running in a square shape, all around the city. It was amusing to see how well such an ancient structure had assimilated itself into modern life. Traffic was flowing through entrance and exit openings in the wall. There are 4 main gates in the wall (North, South, East, West), perpendicular to each other. The 4 gates and the Bell Tower in the center of the city aligned perfectly. The South gate looked the fanciest. The wall is very wide, making it possible to ride/bike on top of the wall. There is a admission fee and entry times to access the wall. The moat running along the outside of the wall is preserved too. Along the moat, outside the ancient city is a small stretch of land that is now developed as a park.

The Great Mosque was hard to find on our own. Tucked away in a narrow street, we walked up and down the market, missing the narrow turn to the Mosque. There is an almost faded sign which is very easy to miss. We would recommend following some tourist group (easy to spot as they will be led by a guide waving a flag) to get to the Mosque. The Mosque looked interesting – a mixture of Islamic and Chinese styles. What interested us more was the Muslim market in the narrow streets outside the Mosque. One of my favorite experiences on the trip! The market was awesome! I did most of my souvenir shopping here. All items were available at a better bargain here. We spent all our yuan here and we barely had enough money to make it back to our hotel. Goods are not the highlight of the market though. It is the Muslim food – vendors selling greasy yummy looking items on the street. We didn’t go into the restaurants along that street, but ate from street vendors alone. Communication was fun and we never really managed to find out what exactly we were eating. But it was heavenly! We started off with a dull orange colored cake. It was very sweet at the first bite. But by the time we got to the center we were surprised by a very sweet filing that elevated the taste of the rest of the cake. The surprise was nice and sometimes it is good not to know what you are eating! We then tried a kind of meat stuffed roti or bread. There were various choices of meat. Lamb was the only thing we could understand. So we got ourselves a minced lamb stuffed fried roti right off the frying pan. The minced meat stuffing was not as flavorful as I thought it would be and the roti was dripping oil. We tried a lentil flour sweet which was just OK too. This vendor was smart. He let us try some of his stuff before we bought it. He must have figured it was easier than trying to communicate what it was, to us. The thing we liked the most was a kind of beef sausage rolled in a magical mix of spices. We loved it so much that we went back to the amused ladies for more. The market also had a colorful array of dry fruits of all colors and nuts of various kinds. Islam was brought to China by Muslim merchants along the Silk Road.

The next day we visited the Terracotta Army excavation pit site. All three pits are now enclosed in separate buildings. Pit 1 mainly consists of a contingent of the Emperor’s foot soldiers. There are a few terracotta horse chariots with generals, presumably to lead these men. Columns of the terracotta soldiers seem to be separated by low dirt walls. The walls were never there originally. That was caused by the caving in of the roof over years and years underground. Among the excavation is a small shallow tomb that dates back to a era much after Emperor Qin Shi Huang. This suggests that common Chinese people may have discovered the buried terracotta warriors before, but did not hold it in high regard. Pit 2 is still largely buried. However investigations reveal that the pit contains many horseback riders and archers. The famous statue of the ‘Kneeling Archer’ was discovered from Pit 2. Today, the terracotta warriors all have the color of dirt. It is hard to imagine that at the time they were buried, they were painted figures and looked life-like. Amazingly, no two terracotta warriors are identical! Pit 3 is believed to have been the headquarters or commanding station and it the smallest of the 3 pits discovered. It consisted of about 50 generals and soldiers, 4 horses and 1 chariot.

The museum complex also has a 360degree theater – a movie about the history of the Terracotta warriors being played on screens that line the walls of a circular room. It was a nice experience. You feel you are right in the middle of the action! There is also a gift shop that can ship even life size replicas of the warriors to any part of the world (costs $$$, of course!). But if all you need is a small replica that will fit in your luggage, I would suggest buying it from shops elsewhere, for a fraction of the cost. Near the gift shop and theater, is a display of pictures of dignitaries of various countries who have visited the Terracotta Warriors. Saw pics of Sonia Gandhi’s visit (India). Also is the complex, is a display of finer treasures excavated from the Emperor’s buried funeral retinue. Among them is the famous ‘Bronze Chariot’. The attention to detail is amazing. The plumes on the horses and the chains are made from bronze strands of very very small diameter. The craftsmanship is so advanced for those days that it is still a mystery how they were able to do that without modern technology!

Big Wild Goose Pagoda is a Buddhist pagoda in Xian built about 1500 years ago during the Tang Dynasty. Tang dynasty building s are generally simple and look plain compared to the bright red buildings of the Ming dynasty with its vibrant blue and green artwork. The exterior facade of this pagoda was rebuilt in the Ming dynasty and the contrast in styles can be clearly seen at this site. The pagoda houses sutras and Buddha figurines brought to China from India by the Buddhist monk Xuanzang. Chants reverberating through the loudspeakers sounded vaguely familiar and reminded me of temples in India. I checked with our guide and learnt that the chants were in Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language. Who would have thought! Of course, none of the locals including our guide had no idea what was being chanted. Like most sacred places, this site also had a very huge and ornamental traditional incense burner on the way in. At the Wild Goose Pagoda, I first came to know about Guanyin a female Buddhist goddess of mercy and compassion. The Big Wild Goose pagoda is not to be confused with the Small Wild Goose Pagoda which is also in Xian, but not as old as the Big pagoda.

We ended that day in Xian with a Dumpling feast followed by a Tang dynasty show. At the dumpling feast we were offered 14 different types of dumplings followed by the customary soup at the end (Chinese meals have soups served at the end of the meal). The dumpling were uniquely created – the duck dumplings were shaped like a duck, the fish dumplings were shaped like fish etc. They looked very cute and tasted unique as well. The soup had mini-dumplings thrown in. The waitress would then serve the soup into your bowls. The number of dumplings in your bowl would denote luck, success, happiness etc. The Tang dynasty dance and music show that followed was very interesting as well. Tang dynasty is known as the period when arts and culture flourished and refined. This was a nice display of elaborate Chinese costumes, dance moves and the enchanting strains of Chinese music which I absolutely love!

The next day we stopped at a Lacquer factory on the way to the airport. Lacquer is a type of varnish used to produce a hard, durable finish for furniture and handicrafts. Some of the pieces of furniture had exquisite work on them with jade and other semi precious stones. The factory also had many woodwork and Chinese silk crafts as well.

Next: Shanghai

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