Considered the ancient seat of imperial dynasties of China, Xi’an (西安) is the modern day successor of the capital of Chang’An (长安). It first came to prominence during the rise of the Zhou dynasty (周朝) around 11th century BC. And until the end of the Tang dynasty, the city was largely an imperial capital though interrupted for some time during the interregnum of the fourth and fifth centuries.
Now there are reasons for this city to be capital.
Lying in a plain created by surrounding mountains, the area was at the lower end of the Wei river and on the westernmost reaches of the Sinitic world. And it is old, because there are said to be archaeological evidence of inhabitation as far back as 6700 years ago. Whereas the Shang dynasty was further to the east, the Zhou which emerged to subsume it was based from here. The Qin dynasty (秦朝) that would unify China eventually sealed the city’s place as imperial capital.
You might have read (here) that we came flying into the city from Lanzhou (兰州), after traversing nearly 1900km across an arid stretch of land mostly devoid of “civilization”. We had reached the end point of our journey and a celebratory note for the ancient caravan traders, for they would have been relishing at the opportunity of exchanging goods. And in what can be considered a cosmopolitan city of that time. For us however, when we got here it was mid October and the farmers were busy burning the chaff after the autumn harvest. So thick smog enveloped the city so much that we could not get around to much sightseeing at all. Sigh.
It is thus with soooo much regret that we have not seen most of this city! Hence the below essay will really be about the sights we enjoyed away from this ancient capital. Never mind we told ourselves, we will be back! As of March of 2017, a budget airline runs four direct flights per week connecting our little red dot with Xi’an.
Ok, since we did not explore the city much, what did we do?
Unifier of all under heaven
Can you believe that with all the excitement of visiting the site of the first emperor’s mausoleum, we could not take any photos? Yep, at the time of our visit that many years back the rationale is that the flash photography may damage the relics. So it was an enforced rule not to take photos while visiting the excavated pits. Though we have to say the locals ignored it. Sigh. Stupid foreigners we were!
Perhaps it was the timing of the visit, but when we were there the excavated pits were all dimly lit. It was hard to make out the terracotta warriors standing in attention, since the viewing platform around it was quite high up. And you will recall that the entire region was engulfed with smog from the burning of the fields…
However, one do need to be there to feel the atmosphere of awe and imagine how much effort and grief went into the building of these today-relics. And until today they keep detecting yet more sections of the complex. There has been so many theories postulated why the emperor embarked on such a momentous scale of building. But for us one thing was clear : the martial emperor feared death and had sought for everlasting life. Perhaps he had wanted to have a whole world to rule even upon his imminent death?
And speaking of martial, have you ever heard of
The martial arts mountains?
We are sure many would be familiar with Chinese martial arts – the so called “kung fu”…and in many instances (cartoons included) the learning of such would often entail living on a mountain…
Perhaps it is also entwined with the Taoist belief that the mountains are the abode of the gods and deities, a place where one would in sync with nature.
Huashan (华山), approximately 120km from Xi’an was our go-to mountain. As one of the five greats of Chinese mountains, it has been the place for pilgrims to visit time in memorial. And folks come here seeking medicinal plants too! Today it is less religious but more for folks coming on hikes and climbs. Not that we did any of that, because a funicular links the base to the top – almost anyway. From there, one can then choose a varied number of pathways towards the peaks.
We are not sure how much it has changed over the last 20 years. But when we were there, we did not see much in the way of safety railings. You might have also noticed that the paths are rather steeply inclined and cliffs off to either sides. And where there are steps, they are narrow and near vertical!
So in a word it is risky. Too bad there was no instagram for us to awe an audience with the “death defying” pose(s) over a cliff’s edge! But the rewards for making this far up are the views. And the seeming perpetual misty conditions add to an air of mysteriousness. Perhaps it was the smog, LOL. All good for a day’s excursion.
And so ends our little story of our time in Xi’an and the surrounding attractions. The trouble with getting around with a tour group is the limited time allotted to the attractions and the pre-designed itinerary. Today, the widespread availability of information and improved tourist infrastructure means you need no longer depend on tour groups. One is empowered to do your own “free and easy”!
This journey took place in October 1998