Xi'an: The Ancient City

Shaanxi Province
January 16, 2008

Dear Family and Friends,

Whenever I tell my Chinese friends I am going to Xi`an, they always respond with, "Jan, you are going to an ancient city."

It is difficult to imagine that modern Xi`an, with a population of more than three million, is an ancient city. Yet, ancient it is.

For many centuries, Xi`an had been a center of Chinese culture and governance. Historians trace eleven major dynasties stretching back to the 11th Century, BCE.

Known as Chiang`an until its decline in the 10th Century, Xi`an was the terminus of the fabulous Silk Road. Camel caravans unloaded goods from The Middle East and reloaded with artifacts, ideas and cultural aspects that influenced the world.

The reason for my trip and the major attraction of Xi`an is the Army of Terracotta Warriors. The Army was commissioned by its commander, Emperor Qin Shi Huang. The carved soldiers, horses, weapons and armaments lay buried with the Emperor for two millennia.

"The Army of the Terracotta Warriors was discovered in 1974 by peasants digging a well. The awesome ranks of life-size pottery figures, modeled from yellow clay, were made to guard the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi, despotic ruler who unified China over 2200 years ago.

"Excavations yielded three pits and over 7,000 soldiers, archers, and horses. Pit 1 contains the infantry; Pit 2 is filled with cavalry and soldiers; Pit 3 seems to be the command center, with seventy high-ranking officers.

Each warrior, originally colored with pigment and holding a weapon, has an individually crafted expression." (Yes, there are seven thousand different faces!)

"The intricacy is astonishing, especially in the careful execution of individual hairstyles on the hand-sculpted heads. Further artistry is evident in the detailed belts, clothing and footwear.

"…Clothed in upper-body armor and kneeling in a state of preparation, the Kneeling Archer is alert although his wooden bow has disintegrated. His square-toed shoes are studded for extra grip." *

Jenny is my official guide. First we stroll through the lengthy winter gardens as we approach the entrance to the tomb. We view the soldiers in the pits, pose for photos and chat about this remarkable assemblage of ancient art and modern restoration.

Two bronze chariots are on display in the exhibition hall. Half actual size, one is made up of over 3,600 metal pieces. The chariot is drawn by four horses. Their ears pitched forward, the horses anticipate the battle. The charioteer sits under a huge protective umbrella; he holds four sets of reins in his hands. Each wheel of the chariot is supported by thirty spokes.

Finally, the inevitable and enormous gift shop. A few years ago my friends Dee Dee and Richard preceded me here. They shipped home three life-size replica warriors who now reside in Dee Dee's elegant home in Miami. I am risk-averse. For my studio apartment in Bangkok, I choose six tiny figurines that decorate my coffee table. If I had more room…?

Jenny is a charming guide and we are an enthusiastic duo. Reluctantly we part, but not before exchanging eddresses. (Did I just invent a new word?) I now have a new friend and pen pal in Xi`an.

On my own, I visited several other ancient sites in Xi`an. The enormous Bell Tower was built in 1384. The tower has a distinctive three-tiered roof and houses a large collection of bells, chimes and assorted musical instruments. The balcony offers great views of the modern city and the modern traffic.

The Drum Tower was built in 1380 and sits near the old Muslim quarter. The main drum is about two meters in diameter and for only three dollars (!) you can take a whack with a huge drum stick.

The Great Mosque in Xi`an is truly old and an important remnant of the East-West trade along the Silk Road. One of the largest mosques in China, the Great Mosque was built in 742 when Islam was still a young religion.

"A serene oasis of tranquility, the mosque has four courtyards, the first of which contains a 30 ft (9m) high decorated wooden arch built in the 17th Century, while the third courtyard houses the Introspection Minaret, an octagonal pagoda with a triple-eaved roof. Located beyond two fountains is the main prayer hall, capped in turquoise tiles, its ceiling carved with inscriptions from the Koran. **

The most distinctive landmark in Xi`an is the Big Goose Pagoda, completed in 652 CE. The pagoda itself is 210 ft (64 m) high and was built to store hundreds of scriptures that were translated from Sanskrit to Chinese. The original sutras were brought to China by Xuanzang, a monk who traveled through Central Asia and India.

The Big Goose Pagoda or Great Wild Goose Pagoda sits in the middle of a large park. The park is filled with golden Buddha statues, and leafless, mysterious, oddly shaped trees. Several buildings adorned with colorful paintings surround the park. Both inside the park and outside at a large plaza, dozens of Chinese tourists are as excited as I am to visit these reminders of the ancient history of Xi`an.

In Xi`an, I took three outdoor portraits that I think capture the combination of traditional culture with the modern temper. The first is of a young girl frying crackers and cakes in a large vat. The second is of a group of elderly ladies sitting in an open air shop; they are dressed in heavy winter clothing; they are seriously clicking their Mahjong tiles. The third scene is a man, ensconced in his newspaper kiosk; he is clicking away on his notebook computer.

My modern (I hope) train awaits. Tomorrow, I shall ride to the city of Luoyang and once more, travel back almost two thousand years when I visit the religious sanctuary of the Longmen Grottoes.

I love the Ancient. I love Tomorrow.

Cheers from not-so ancient (I hope),


PS Actually, I have a second pen pal in Xi`an; her name is Sandy. Sandy is a serious businesswoman; we met at my hotel where she was attending a conference. One evening Sandy took me to one of her favorite restaurants.

And here's the point: During my trip to Xi`an I failed to take note of the ingredients and the delicious meals I was eating. I have a good reason to return very soon since I have a new travel letter in mind.

My dear American friends, the title of this letter will be "Real Chinese Food."

* "China." Dorling Kindersley. London. 2005

** "China. DK


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