Xi'an: Archaeology, History and Culture

Weary heads rise from their bunks as the sun seeps through smudged windows. It’s 7am and the overnight train from Beijing to Xi’an is rattling along its tracks as passengers point to the outskirts of their destination. Lush farmland coasts by. A blue tractor tears up its master’s field for the new season’s crop. The rugged, orange ranges leading to Mount Huashan glow in the distance before sky-scrapers emerge like young seedlings shooting up from soil.

Xi’an, or ‘Western Peace’, is regarded as an eternal city, the birthplace of China’s most ancient civilisations and boasts a history of 6,500 years. Xi’an is the capital of Shaanxi province, located in China’s north-west and is best known for its archaeology.

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Rows of terracotta warriors and horses, standing to attention ready for an attack, make for a threatening yet endearing scene. In 246BC, 13-year-old Qin Shi Huang ascended to the throne, later becoming the first emperor of China. Immediately, Qin Shi Huang started work on a mausoleum and spent 11 years constructing his future resting place. To guard it, he commissioned for an army of terracotta warriors and horses which took 38 years and over 700,000 craftsmen to sculpt. They were erected in precise rows outside the emperor’s mausoleum to depict his own army, guarding him in the afterlife. A group of peasants discovered pottery in the area in 1974, subsequently exposing this archaeological goldmine. Since then, over 7,000 artefacts have been excavated and restored though many are still yet to be discovered. Hundreds of these life-sized terracotta warriors and their steeds stand in situ, each unveiling their own unique facial features and regalia. There are three excavation pits comprising this museum, covering a staggering 16,300 square metres.

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Closer to the city’s business district, travellers discover City Wall orbiting Xi’an. During his reign, Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), captured this area. He was advised to build high walls to enlarge existing ones in an attempt to fortify the city, unify nearby states and store food supplies. Xi’an City Wall stands 12 metres tall, 14 metres wide and covers 13.7 kilometres. Ramparts were built every 120 metres so soldiers could fend off enemies. Now, visitors climb the ramparts’ staircases and stroll along the wall’s expanse while gazing at chains of red lanterns overhead. Some hire push bikes for a more mobile experience. Busy, traffic-lined West Street is spotted from a watchtower. This was once the dusty start to the Silk Road trade route. Now, a corporate skyline crowds the horizon; a collision of old and new Xi’an.

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While the Terracotta Army and City Wall punctuate Xi’an’s archaeological significance, it’s the city’s historical and cultural elements that sometimes take a back seat. But they shouldn’t. Xi’an is a fore-founding city for Buddhism in China. Big Wild Goose Pagoda towers over Xi’an in the Da Ci’en Temple complex and was built in 652 during Emperor Gaozong’s reign in the Tang Dynasty. Its purpose was to help house Buddhist materials, collected from India by scholar Xuanzang. Over 17 years and crossing 100 countries, Xuanzang gathered Buddha figures, sutras (later translated into Chinese totalling 1,335 volumes) and relics. Upon his return, Xuanzang supervised Big Wild Goose Pagoda’s 60-metre, five-storey construction. More stories were added in 704. Then in 1556, the pagoda was devastated by an earthquake. The pagoda was restored and now stands at seven stories with a prominent lean. In the manicured monastery gardens circling the pagoda, chickens roam and scratch, birds sing from gold-gilded cages and Buddha statues shine. The grounds exude peace and tranquillity.

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Islam in Xi’an is characterised by the pagoda-styled Great Mosque, located on Muslim Snack Street in the Muslim Quarter. Ten mosques lie in this area alone. Yet, The Great Mosque is the oldest, largest and most-preserved mosque, built in 742 when Islam was introduced to northwest China by Arab merchants from Persia and Afghanistan. What defines The Great Mosque is its distinct juxtaposition of traditional Islamic and Chinese pagoda architecture. After strolling through five pristine courtyards, some adorned by Arabic calligraphy, visitors step back out into Muslim Snack Street to the tempting smells of dried fruits, roasted chestnuts, deep-fried delicacies and steamed guan tang baozi.

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For a satisfying dinner, travellers retreat and dive into stacks of bamboo baskets filled with steamed dumplings at Tang Dynasty Palace. Flavours range from duck, to walnut and vegetable and the dumplings themselves are hand-moulded in the shape of ducks, walnuts and celery leaves. Once bellies are filled, the Tang Dynasty music and dance performance begins with a pluck of a zheng string and a bow delicately scraping an erhu. Guests are smitten by an opera of dance routines, narrative and singing that re-enacts the prosperous years of Xi’an’s Tang Dynasty period.