Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Seductive Ancient Silk Road (2) - Xian

Xian (pronounced 'she-an', meaning western peace) used to be called Changan (perpetual peace), and was an important capital of several major dynasties including Han, Qin, Tang and Sui. It was the eastern starting point of the ancient silk road (northern route), which no doubt helped it to become the largest city in the world over 1400 years ago.

China's first emperor, Qin Shihuang (221BC-210 BC), made Changan his imperial capital.

It is because of him that nowadays, tens of thousands of tourists come to Xian to marvel at the terracotta warriors. The warriors protect the yet to be excavated main tomb of Emperor Qin. They are of course buried below present day ground level.

You can only view the excavations from an elevated distance nowadays, unless your name is Bill Clinton or something like that, in which case they will let you go down and have eyeball contact. It's quite an experience, and I have even helped arrange some of my clients go there on a day trip out of Beijing. No wonder millions of visitors go there every year.

Around this time, there were several shifts of the capital back and forth further east to Luoyang. Because of this, Luoyang is a city full of history and connections with the silk road (e.g. the 2000-yr old White Horse Temple is China's first buddhist temple, and the large Longmen grottoes with 30,000 buddhist statues carved out of stone rock), but that's another story for another time

The most famous outbound Chinese 'tourist' to start from Changan and travel along the ancient silk road was probably the monk Xuanzhang, who made the Journey to the West (yes, title of a subsequent novel in which the famous Monkey King accompanies Xuanzhang on his trip to India) in the 7th century, and back again. He brought back Buddhists scriptures from India by the camel load, so much in fact that a new storeroom, the Big Goose Pagoda, had to be built to house them.

Changan was also the capital of China during the Tang dynasty 600-900 AD, the golden age of ancient Chinese civilisation. The uniquely well preserved, intact city wall is from the Ming dynasty, and was effective in making it difficult for outsiders to get in (and get out).

Nowadays, however, the wall with its limited number of openings, is effective in making it difficult for cars to get in and out, thereby causing endless traffic jams! It may be more fun to get around by cycling along the top of the wall.

This is the most famous western 'tourist' to Changan, travelling in the 13th century.

Do you know who he is? See below for the answer*

The local culture is not pure Han Chinese. Being so far West, it's not surprising that Muslim Chinese form a sizeable minority group, with their own 1400-yr old Great Mosque.
There are plenty of flour products and lamb in the local diet, and also 'rou jia mo', an early MacDonalds Chinese style, but made with lamb.

I often wonder how long it took the merchants along the ancient silk road to travel from Changan to Urumqi/Turfan or Kashgar or Persia or even to Rome. Today, it's so simple to contact and do trade with these faraway places - one click on the computer and an email goes off instantaneously to anywhere in the world. If you visit Xian and want to write home, it's not a problem, since Xian claims to have the world's largest internet bar (3000 PCs), covering 4 floors, and charging only a few RMB per hour.

I'll continue with the seductive ancient silk road in August after a summer break. Happy holidays!

*Marco Polo

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