As the capital of China’s Shaanxi Province, Xi’an’s long history was aptly summed up by our English-speaking guide: “If Xi’an is the grandmother of cities, Beijing is a youth and Shanghai is just a baby in the womb.”
The first of China’s four great ancient capitals (the other three being Luoyang, Nanjing and Beijing), Xi’an’s hoary past has laid claim to 10 ancient dynasties, the most famous being the Han Dynasty (206BC to 220AD) and the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907AD), during which the city was a booming metropolis as important as Rome.
However, after the decline of Tang power, China’s capital shifted east to Luoyang in 904, and though Xi’an continued to be the eastern limit of the Silk Route, the city never regained its political and cultural significance. Over the years, it lapsed into a provincial city surrounded by semi-arid farmland, and its ancient monuments, monasteries and pagodas suffered serious destruction during the Cultural Revolution excesses of 1966 to 1976.
It was not until 1974, following the chance discovery of the Army of Terracotta Warriors by well-digging farmers, that Xi’an was once again propelled onto the international map. Three decades later, the city has become a major hub for software and service outsourcing, and the local government is pouring funds into the tourism sector. Ancient monuments and museums are being restored, and various replicas of Buddhist and Tang heritage are being constructed to help Chinese tourists rediscover their national heritage.
One of those ancient monuments is the Big Wild Goose Pagoda – Xi’an’s most sacred monument – which was built in 652 by the monk Xuanzang, who travelled across India for 18 years and returned with a precious collection of Buddhist sacred texts. In 1966, the Red Guards burnt the pagoda’s scriptures, silk wall hangings and other relics in a bonfire that raged all night. But that destruction has largely been forgotten as tourists flock to the newly renovated pagoda complex, where elaborate halls and temples venerate the Buddha. The only original remnant – the stark, empty shell of the seven-storey pagoda – lights up at night, standing out in the city's skyline.
Xi’an is also flaunting the glories of the ancient Tang Dynasty, with a 165-acre Tang Paradise Theme Park that is patronised by flocks of tourist groups. Although every bit of this Tang heritage is recreated, it is aesthetically pleasing, landscaped with ponds and lakes, classical gardens, bridges, palaces and pavilions. Explore the vast area on a golf cart, hopping on and off to see abbreviated operas from the Tang Dynasty days, laser shows on the lake, elaborate man-made waterfalls, as well as murals and statues of historical figures, philosophers and poets.
A 36km drive northeast takes you to Xi’an’s most famous attraction, the Army of Terracotta Warriors. They were commissioned in 221BC by the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi, who used the forced labour of 700,000 subjects to create a mausoleum guarded by an entire army. Modern visitors can see a small fraction of this underground army (1,900 of an estimated 7,000 warriors), which has been excavated and displayed in three hanger-like halls set amid landscaped lawns. The actual tomb itself has yet to be excavated, but scientists are exploring its contents using remote sensing technology and believe it is crammed with even greater treasures awaiting discovery, including clay figurines of workers, animals, bronze chariots and other items he would have needed in his afterlife.
Heading back to Xi’an, past peach and pomegranate orchards, the landscape becomes dominated by concrete skyscrapers as the city approaches. Incongruously, the ancient City Wall wraps itself seamlessly around the metropolis, one of the largest ancient military defensive systems in the world. Started during the Tang Dynasty and later expanded by Zhu Yuanzhang, the first Emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644), the stone wall extends more than 13.7km and is the most complete city fortification to have survived in China. Constant restoration work keeps it in good shape, and it can be approached through several gates, although the South Gate is the largest and most accessible. Climb up the flight of high stone steps and walk or cycle along the wall, taking in sweeping views of the both ancient and modern city.