Mentioning Xian brings different images to different people. For many, it is associated with the Silk Road, the key trade route between East and West that ran for more than 6400 km (4000 miles), and during which Xian, in its heyday, was one of the most populous cities in the world. To other people, it is the place where the world-famous Terracotta Warriors were un-earthed 40 years ago, while people keen on Chinese history remember Xian as the seat of more than 13 feudal dynasties ending with the Tang Dynasty’s fall in 907.
Therefore, on my first visit in 1986, my expectations were very high. Flying to Xian, my imagination was running wild with visions of beautiful palaces, stunning pieces of art, priceless artifacts and the unique Tang Dynasty sculptures (ladies in long flowing robes) that I have always found extraordinarily elegant.
Reality struck me upon arrival. The airport was small, messy and its location in the city made landing tricky and uncomfortable. The roads were dirty and dusty turning into deep mud whenever it rained (and it rained almost daily during this particular trip). Taxis were run-down and drivers notorious to go by the “scenic route” with foreigners so the cab fares ended up much higher. The stern buildings also reminded me of those built in my native Slovakia after 1945, without any Chinese touches, style or elegance, so the arrival was a let down.
Luckily, the city is one of the most interesting and fascinating in China to visit due to its incredible past and my mood improved considerably during my stay. Arriving at the Golden Flower Hotel (that became several years later a Shangri-La hotel) in the early evening, I was astounded seeing a crowd of local people staring at the hotel from outside. I understood later that it was one of the tallest structures in the city at the time and at night, it was “shining” while the streets around were dark with the standard dim lights in all buildings and blocks of flats.
Xian was already very popular with foreign tourists as the Terracotta Warriors had already been discovered more than 10 years prior to my visit. The city was on all inbound tourist’s itineraries and those going to see the Terracotta Warriors in the morning could hardly stop to admire the features of the warriors as masses of tourists would basically create an unstoppable flow. So I decided to visit other sites first to better enjoy the warriors in the relative peace and quietness of the afternoon.
The city is so rich in cultural treasures that visitors never have sufficient time to explore them during their few days in what became the capital of Shaanxi Province. I selected the Ban Po Neolithic Village as my first stop. There, history takes on a completely different meaning. My imagination went into overdrive as I walked slowly through the remains of several well organised Neolithic settlements dating back more than 6,700 years, trying to imagine how people used to live in this matriarchal society during times long gone by.
From Ban Po, I went to the Huaqing Hot Spring, a complex of hot springs initially built as an imperial retreat during the Western Zhou Dynasty (11th century BC – 771 BC). Over time, various emperors added buildings and facilities to the original compound . The Hot Springs Palace was built by Tang Emperor Xuanzong, and favoured by Yang Gui Fei, his preferred concubine. Overlooking the beautifully landscaped lake with lots of greenery and what looked like thousands of golden carps, I was told a more contemporary story, called the “Xian Incident”, which took place there in 1936.
It appears that Chang Kai Sheng (also called Chiang Kai-shek), the leader of the Chinese Republic from 1928 to 1948, was literally caught up with his “pants down” by a former warlord, Zhang Xue Liang, while he was residing at the Huaqing complex. Temporarily kidnapped, he was eventually “convinced” to join in a united front with the Chinese Communist Party to fight the Japanese Imperial Army. This united front would eventually end in 1945 leading to the overall victory a few years later of the communist party and the subsequent departure of Chang Kai Sheng to Taiwan that he ruled with an iron fist until his death in 1975.
The final stop on my first day was the visit to the Terracotta Warriors dating from Emperor Qinshihuangdi’s reign (221-206BC), a discovery made by a peasant digging in his field in 1974. The army of soldiers in the hangar-like structure (now called Pit No 1) is breathtaking. There are about 10000 excavated soldiers and horses and excavations around this original site were still going on at that time. Although from a distance, one realizes that each soldier has different features from the others. Since then, more exhibits were added and opened to the public. One can spend long hours in this amazing historical site and my time was up too quickly. I eventually left, walking out of the compound to the “modern day army” of sellers of Xian souvenirs that are still an integral part of the visit today. I bought a very colourful quilt that I kept preciously for many years and that always brought fond memories about my first trip to Xian.
The following day, I went to visit Gao Xue Min, a well-known local paper-cutting artist, at his home. He had already been overseas to host exhibitions and eventually became Chairman of the Xian Paper Cutting Association. I was very interested to discover the difference between this old art form in China and the paper cutting traditions we have in Slovakia and other central European countries. I had a great time sipping Chinese tea while chatting with him and going through his creations. I still have a picture of “Monkeys in the well”, inspired from an old Chinese tale about a young monkey playing by the well at night. Seeing the refection of the moon in the water, it decides to go down the well with the help of other monkeys to get the moon out of the water .….
I have developed a very special affinity to the monkey since arriving in China, partly because it is my Chinese astrological sign, and partly because it holds a special place in Chinese folk art and culture. It is said that monkeys drive away evil spirits. One of the most famous Peking Operas is called the Monkey King and there are many intriguing tales about monkeys in Chinese mythology. One of them has it that a monkey stole a peach from the celestial Garden of Xi Wang Mu. It was not just any peach but a Peach of Immortality destined for a special banquet in honour of “the Eight Immortals” and aimed at ensuring the deities’ everlasting existence. The immortals had waited six thousand years before gathering for this magnificent feast, thus the havoc created by the mischievous monkey’s theft of the peach. As a testimony to this story, I bought a paper cutting on that day representing monkeys and a peach. I framed it and still have it in my sitting room.
I returned back many times afterwards to Xian to continue exploring the city and its surroundings such as the astounding Famen Temple (that very few foreign tourists visit as it is quite a drive from Xian), the Great Mosque that brings me unbelievable (and unexpected as I am a Christian) peace on each visit, the Shaanxi Provincial Museum (that took 18 years to build in Tang Dynasty style and houses over 370,000 precious relics) and the Tang Dynasty Tomb of Princess Yong Tai. But this is another story ….