The Silk Road: Xi’an, the ancient capital of China

So we begin our journey along the Silk Road!

Just last week, I came back from a two-week trip, where we essentially followed the Silk Road from Xi’an all the way to Xinjiang (the edge of China). This series will be separated by the various sections along the Silk Road, and I’ll save all the food photos and commentary towards the end.

Xi’an is known as the ancient capital of China because it is one of the oldest cities in the country, the capital of both the Han and the Tang Dynasty, the starting point of the Silk Road and the home of the burial mounds of many historically important emperors (and one empress). Today, it’s become a historically rich and vibrant city, home to 8 million people.

Xi'an city gate at night

Xi’an city gate at night

A little more than a hundred kilometers out of Xi’an is Famen Temple, widely regarded as the “ancestor of pagoda temples in Guanzhong area”. Walking in, you’ll see a path lined with the statues of many bodhisattvas and immediately ahead, you’ll find yourself looking at the Namaste Pagoda, a tall, golden, diamond structure. Inside houses a true relic of the Buddha — declared by experts to be a finger bone of the Sakyamuni Buddha. This relic you’ll only be able to see on certain days (1st and 15th of every lunar month, holidays or weekends).

Now, if you go to Xi’an, you HAVE to visit the Terracotta warriors, what Xi’an is most known for. The Terracotta warriors are earthen sculptures that the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, ordered to be built so that when he died, he’d be able to have a whole city — full of people, food, guards, tools, etc.– with him underground. Only a tiny portion of that city has been unearthed (it was first discovered in 1987 after having been forgotten about for thousands of years!), and we’ve only been able to find the Terracotta warriors so far. Many of the artifacts have already been stolen or have been severely broken, but when you walk in to see the small tombs, just imagine millions more of these warriors, horses and other artifacts. A whole city built from clay, buried underground, for an emperor!

Not too far away is the mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, but it’s much less adorned (didn’t want to attract thiefs!). It’s just a small little mound out of Xi’an. Like I mentioned before, many members of royal families across several dynasties are buried in Xi’an, but perhaps most memorable are Qin Shi Huang and Wu Ze Tian.

Now, Wu Ze Tian is an interesting figure in Chinese history. The first female ruler of a heavily patriarchal society, she married an emperor in the Tang Dynasty. After his death, she prevented her son from taking the throne, instead taking it herself. And she was particularly ruthless, killing her own daughter to cement her status. As someone who married into the royal family, she then sought out to kill everyone with the surname “Li” (the surname of the royal family) so that no one could usurp her power. (Think Game of Thrones in real life.) She’ll show up again later in this series when we head to Gansu province.

Another place to visit while you’re there (I didn’t go this time, though last time — six years ago — I did) is the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, located smack in the middle of the city. It’s an important architectural achievement in ancient China, and even more important to the Chinese Buddhist history, so check it out if you’re interested, and if you’re still interested, there’s also a Small Wild Goose Pagoda! 🙂

And with that, we’ll head off to Qinghai Province!

Xi’an (西安)

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9 thoughts on “The Silk Road: Xi’an, the ancient capital of China

  1. Bill says:

    love this post — to travel along the Silk Road is really a beautiful experience! I’ve bookmarked your blog and will be coming back to read more!

    Like

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