Monday, July 9

The Xian they never talk about

Xian offers more than just one breath-taking tourist attraction.  Garry and I discovered this while visiting the Terracotta Warriors in 2003. Our education began the moment we arrived. As China’s first national capital it has numerous historically significant and equally spectacular sights.  For example, Garry and I stayed in a hotel overlooking the ancient city’s wooden Bell Tower.  It's a graceful, yet imposing structure built in 1382 at the intersection of the ancient city’s two main thoroughfares.  The three-tiered buildingsits in harmony with an equally impressive wooden drum tower located 500 metres away.

However, the city’s most spectacular sight is one I’d never heard about until we arrived.  The ancient city center is surrounded by an impressive defensive wall.  This is no ordinary wall.  It encircles an area of 14 square kilometres, is 13.7 kilometres long and rises to a height of 12 metres.  Incredibly the wall is wide enough at the top for a two-lane roadway.  It’s considered one of China’s, if not the world's best preserved city walls.

The wall was built during the Ming Dynasty in 1370.  Unbelievably, it replaced an even larger wall built between 194 BC and 190 BC.  The scale of this structure is like nothing I’ve ever seen anywhere else, outside the Great Wall of China.  I couldn’t wait to show my parents.  Like me, they were suitably impressed, and eqully astonished to see the width of its crown road.  In fact the scale of these walls is such that after climbing one of its many impressive stone staircases you’re greeted by eager vendors offering bikes and golf carts for hire.

Mum and I walked from the wall’s north gate to its eastern corner on our second day in town.  As we strolled we watched workmen restoring some of the wooden watch towers standing every 200 metres or so along its length.  Upon reaching the northeast corner we then peered over the ramparts to observe the five-metre wide defensive moat encircling its outer rim.  The following morning I took my Dad for his own private viewing session.  We entered from south gate, arriving in time to watch a daily ceremonial presentation of guards dressed in traditional costume.
On our last day in Xian we visited its Great Mosque.  As the eastern terminus of the Silk Road to Persia, the ancient city supported a large Muslim population.  The mosque was built in 741 using a traditional Chinese floorplan.  That is, the complex consists of a series of elegantly gated courtyards progressively leading visitors towards a large, rather tired, wooden Mosque.  

I love the venue simply because it offers an unexpected respite from the urban jungle outside.  It’s a tranquil oasis of green in city filled with noise and clutter.  However, my parents were somewhat disappointed it was in such poor repair when compared to other historic sites.
Our final two tourist sites for the day couldn’t have been more different.  First, we ventured out to the recently opened heritage park dominated by an artificial lake and an imposing statue of defiant emperor.  Much of the park still appears to be under construction, including an enormous reproduction of an emporer's palace.  As a result its young saplings offer limited shade from the intense sun.  However, it's easy to imagine the area inevitably becoming a popular tourist destination in the years ahead.
We then ventured out of town to see the Yangling Mausoleum from the Han Dynasty.  The complex was built in 153 AD on area covering 20 square kilometers.  The mausoleum’s tomb mound sits in the centre of the vast consecrated ground.  Like most imperial tombs in China it’s easy to mistake its over-grown, tree clad mound for just another hillside.  However, deep within its midst lie a vaulted burial chamber. 

The tomb's mound is surrounded by 81 burial pits.  As is common practice, thousands of ceremonial objects have been placed in each pit.  These ensure the emperor and his wife are appropriately equipped to enjoy the afterlife.  Today you can visit some of these pits located under a featureless grass paddock on the tomb's southern flank.
Access  to pits is via an impressive subterranean museum.  After descending a gently sloping ramp visitors reach a glass-bottomed gallery.  To avoid scratching the glass walkway you've handed paper covers to slip over your shoes; then left to walk over each pit, viewing its contents.  These include excavated pots, miniture animals and the remains of several chariots.  However, the most fascinating artifact is another vast terracotta army.  Unlike its more famous counterpart, these warriors are sculpted only one-tenth of their real life size; with arms carved separately from wood.

Over the centuries their arms have long since rotted away, leaving a series of rather eerie, armless dolls.  I thought the most fascinating objects on display were a menagerie of terracotta animals buried in several pits.  The main "farmyard pit" contains thousands upon thousands of terracotta goats, chickens, sheep and cattle; all standing in silent rows that stretch almost 100 metres.  It’s an awesome sight!

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