Xi’an – the end (and the beginning) of the Silk Road
The Silk Road begins in Xi’an, China’s capital for more than a thousand years. Its central position allowed it to control the great overland trade routes and for us it is the eastern terminus of our Silk Road journey. Although we continue on to Beijing, that is no longer part of the Silk Road.
We arrive by plane on a murky, wet afternoon and are met by our new guide, Puma (‘like the trainers’), and Mr Feng, our driver. The drive into town is long but our hotel is not a concrete monster. It is a Tang Dynasty style courtyard, admittedly on a grand scale.
After the wild west of Xinjiang and the small-town feel of Dunhuang, we feel a bit like country bumpkins coming into the big sophisticated city. We see familiar western brand names and after weeks of plov, somsas, kebabs and noodles, we have a pizza for dinner!
The main reason for visiting Xi’an is to see the Terracotta Army, but the old city is also worth seeing. It is surrounded by intact medieval walls that are 40 feet high. Our hotel is close to the Wild Goose Pagoda, which is beautifully illuminated at night.
There is still a thriving Muslim quarter, dating from the heyday of the Silk Road when itinerant Muslim merchants settled in the city from the Tang Dynasty onwards. It is now a destination for local tourists, who queue up to buy local specialities such as nougat, deep-fried persimmon cakes stuffed with walnut paste (very tasty) and squid on a stick.
The Great Mosque, which supposedly dates from the Tang Dynasty (its claimed foundation date is 742 AD – a bit of a stretch of credibility since this is only a just over a century after Mohammed’s revelation), is an extraordinary structure, looking like no other Islamic building.
We wonder whether the Terracotta Army will disappoint. It does not. The warriors are in three excavation pits, of which Pit One is the largest, containing nearly 6,000. Not all have been re-assembled, but the ranks of those that have make an unforgettable impression when first seen. The broken pieces have been left on the ground and speak poignantly of the labours of the thousands of nameless craftsmen who spent years making them. Originally, the warriors would have been brightly coloured and a display area lets us get close to some striking examples where the original colour can still be seen.
The Terracotta Army dates from the 2nd century BC, so predates the Silk Road, but it marks a beginning of China’s growing influence which led to the development of trade and the exchange of knowledge. A fitting finale to our tour.
But that’s not quite the end! Now it’s on to Beijing…