CHINA> Regional
More than Terracotta Warriors: Hidden fortunes in Xi'an
By Erik Nilsson (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-07-30 09:52

More than Terracotta Warriors: Hidden fortunes in Xi'an
First built in 194 BC, Xi'an's 12-m-high wall wraps 12 km around the city. [China Daily] 

Armies of tourists besiege Xi'an every day to see the Terracotta Warriors. But travelers who go the extra mile to sift through the city's cultural treasure trove will discover it's a place of many hidden gems.

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In AD 800, Xi'an had a population of more than 1 million and was the world's biggest city at the time. Its ancient legacy as the seat of 13 dynasties is breathing new life into its modern reincarnation. And its position as the endpoint of the ancient Silk Road has become the starting point for its modern cosmopolitan revival.

China travelers know history and modernity bump into each other in most of the country's cities. But in Xi'an, they collide, tangling together like the fenders of a time-machine pileup.

More than Terracotta Warriors: Hidden fortunes in Xi'an

Xi'an's pulse is best felt from its heart - the town's center, which is anchored on the Bell Tower. The imposing 36-m-high tower looms over the cityscape in daytime and blazes in spotlights after sundown.

Visitors to the 1.3-sq-km structure can view historical artifacts, watch costumed chime-music performances and clang the 5-ton bell.

The tower was built in 1384 as a timepiece and warning alarm. A few minutes' walk from the Bell Tower stands its percussive counterpart.

The Drum Tower features performances and displays specimens of the 50 varieties of drums developed throughout China's history.

More than 1,000 artifacts, including furniture, shadow puppets and snuff bottles, are displayed in the two towers.

The arched passageway in the Drum Tower's base leads to Huiminjie, a street named after the predominantly Hui ethnic minority whose culture and cuisine prevail along the corridor.

This pedestrian passageway is framed by Hui eateries, where discs of naan bread and impaled gobs of mutton sizzle over charcoal grills.

Wandering west through the passageways in the surrounding Muslim Quarter - as teeming and labyrinthine as any ant farm - brings visitors to the 1,250-year-old Great Mosque.

More than 5 sq km of the 13-sq-km compound are covered with buildings, spread among four courtyards.

A newcomer to the city's tourism offerings is Qujiang Pond Monument Park, a 4.7-hectare, 2 billion-yuan ($292.7 million) site opened last July.

Visitors hop aboard small electric trains to tour eight scenic spots, including a museum showcasing relics unearthed during the park's construction, a neo-Tang Dynasty art gallery district and an ancient concert hall. Several waterfowl species flit about Bird Island, which pokes out of the 283-hectare Qujiang Pool.

But Qujiang is merely a warm-up for the other recent addition to Xi'an's travel regiment, Tang Paradise. The 1.3 billion-yuan theme park opened in 2005 and celebrates every Xi'an resident's favorite dynasty.

More than Terracotta Warriors: Hidden fortunes in Xi'an

The serene Qujiang Lake ripples across about a third of the 100-sq-km park. The site is constellated by 66 attractions, including gardens, monuments and pagodas - all infused with all things Tang.

Up to 600 visitors pack the Phoenix Theater to catch daily performances of the Dream Back to the Tang Dynasty dance drama, which features technicolored costumes and dazzling choreography.

The park also hosts one of the world's largest water-screen cinemas. A cartoon version of Journey to the West is projected on a 120-m-wide wall of fountain spray every night. Lasers and pyrotechnics contribute to the multimedia character of the program, which opens with a parade of live dynastic characters perched atop gliding neon-lit floats.

Tang Paradise's water-and-light show actually outshines that of Asia's largest fountain, located a few km eastward. Visitors can walk among eight isles inside the fountain, strolling among its 2,004 nozzles and 3,000 multicolored light bulbs as water spurts in tempo with classical music.

More than Terracotta Warriors: Hidden fortunes in Xi'an

Towering above the fountain is the seven-story Big Wild Goose Pagoda. The 64-m-high building warehoused the scriptures Xuan Zang - the monk portrayed in Journey to the West - brought from India.

Tang Emperor Gao Zong originally ordered it constructed as a five-story memorial to his mother in AD 652. After an earthquake caused the top two floors to cave in, it was rebuilt to its current height in AD 704. But the quake left the spire tilting 1 m east, making it look like the Chinese version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The name comes from a legend about famished monks. Their prayers for meat seemed to have been answered when a giant goose hurtled from the heavens, crashing dead at their feet. But fearing it was actually a god rather than an oversized gander, they buried - rather than ate - the bird at the site.

A few km to the east stands the 15-story, 43-m-high Small Goose Pagoda.

Built around AD 708 under Tang Emperor Zhong Zong, the structure stood 2 m higher before the 1556 Shaanxi earthquake. Ancient Indian monks would make pilgrimages to the spire with Buddhist scriptures from their homeland in hand.

The pagoda shadows the Xi'an Museum, which showcases the city's development since prehistory.

More than 2,000 displays strewn among seven exhibition halls show the internationalization of the Silk Road's terminus.

In addition to distinctly Chinese artifacts, many displays come from faraway lands that traded in ancient Xi'an.

The most intriguing items fuse the Chinese and foreign elements. In carvings covering a stone coffin for a Greek man who died in the city during the Tang Dynasty, Buddhas chat with angels, and Chinese musicians perform in front of a Pegasus.

The museum is situated just south of the city wall's main gate.

First constructed in 194 BC and expanded until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the bulwark built to repel foreign soldiers now attracts legions of tourists from afar.

The 12-m-high wall wraps 11.9 km around the city. Its 15-18 m width makes it ideal for cycling, and there are plenty of spots among the guard towers where visitors can rent bikes.

Tucked inside the wall's main gate is the city's main nightlife corridor, Defuxiang.

Some of the bars flanking this cobblestone street play up the kitsch, while others are no-frills watering holes. There seems to be little that falls in between.

A pair of stern Terracotta Warriors guards the entrance of Marco Polo Bar, while the walls of Old Henry's Bar are covered with cowboy hats, bull skulls and revolvers.

Back Nook Bar is a utilitarian collection of tables and chairs, save for a gutted telephone booth stuck in a corner.

While the Terracotta Warriors have marched to the top spot of most travel itineraries, Xi'an's visitors will discover a bonanza of other historical and modern marvels that make the journey all the more worthwhile.