China changes before my eyes as I fly from east to west.
Shanghai’s ever-present haze is made even grayer under cloudy skies. But after our flight takes off, we punch through the clouds to find plenty of sun. The cloudcover beneath us soon gives way, and I can see the landscape beneath stretched out like a broad canvas.
Farmers have painted square fields, bisected by the thin brown lines of roads and the dark green lines of irrigation channels. I see plenty of bright blue squares that, in America, one would take to be swimming pools, but in China, the squares indicate the corrugated sheet metal popular for roofing. Settlements dot the landscape everywhere.
I can’t spot a single undeveloped plot. That’s not to say there aren’t any, but from my vantage point tens of thousands of feet in the air, it looks like the Chinese have committed every square foot for habitation, business, or agriculture. I have no idea where any wildlife could possibly live.
The broad coastal plain around Shanghai eventually gives way to small clusters of hills that, in turn, grow into an impressive range of mountains. Atop the step mountains and in the deep valleys, I finally see wilderness.
But the topography isn’t the only thing about China that changes.
Suddenly, the mountains give way to the city of Xi’an, the City of Western Peace. (“Xi” means “west” and “an” means “peace.”)
Going from Shanghai to Xi’an is, in a way, like going through a time warp. If Shanghai represents all that is powerful and new about modern China, Xi’an represents all that is ancient and traditional.
Xi’an is a much smaller city than Shanghai, with a population of only about 8.7 million in the greater metro area. It’s infrastructure, although growing, isn’t nearly as developed as Shanghai’s.
But Xi’an is a far, far older city. It served as the capital of China for 1800 years, beginning in 221 B.C. when the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, unified all the warring states into a single country.
The Big Wild Goose Pagoda
By 119 B.C., traders had established the Silk Road, stretching from the Mediterranean on the western end, through Persia and India, to Xi’an on the eastern end. Islam came to China along that road. So did Buddhism. In the seventh century A.D., Buddhist monks established a Sanskrit translation center in Xi’an.
The city remains a textile-manufacturing center, producing cotton and silk. Only ten percent of their output goes toward exports. The rest stays in China. The city is also known as the Silicon Valley of China because of the many information technology companies located there. The other major industry is tourism.
Our tour guide, a smiling Chinese man named Harry, waits for us with a yellow flag over his shoulder. We’ll get used to following the flag as he holds it up above the crowds of people we eventually have to push through.
Harry takes us to dinner at a dumpling buffet, where we sample nearly twenty varieties of dumplings. (The maple and walnut dumplings prove especially popular at my table.) Dumplings are a local staple because they can be made from wheat, which doesn’t require as much water to grow as rice. For that reason, noodles are also popular. Xi’an only gets twenty-four inches of rain each year, so rice growing is impossible. “This year, we get less rain so far,” Harry tells us. “Is very dry. Very dry.”
We all cap off our day with massages. After days of traveling, it’s a welcome break. Xi’an, as it turns out, is famous for its massages. People come from all over China to attend Xi’an’s massage school, and people come from all over the world to get the massages. The divide us into groups of six, give use pajamas to put on, and have us lie down on tables. For a full hour, the massage masters work us over. I’ll sleep well, I’m sure.
Over two days, Harry unfolds one history lesson after another.
We visit a Buddhist temple, The Big Wild Goose Pagoda, built in 652 A.D. during the Tang Dynasty. As legend has it, the monks were deciding whether to embrace vegetarianism when a flock of geese flew over and the lead goose fell dead from the sky. The monks took that as a sign in favor of vegetarianism. They built their pagoda, seven stories tall, on the spot where the goose took its dive.
The Tang Dynasty Palace Music and Dance show
We take in a dinner theater production featuring traditional Tang Dynasty-era palace music and dance. The dancers wear silk dresses with long flowing sleeves that they can swirl in the air like long ribbons. The musicians play period instruments, heavy on the cymbals, with the tightness of a modern orchestra.
We walk the grounds of the Tang Dynasty’s winter palace, a complex of buildings nestled into the foot of Li Mountain. For four months of the year, the emperor and his entourage lived there because of the warm springs that bubbled up from the ground. They built elaborate bathhouses and beautiful gardens.
Part of the winter palace complex
The winter palace is also the site of the 1936 “Xi’an Incident,” a kidnapping and assassination attempt that forced the Chinese leader at the time, Chiang Kai-shek, to forge an alliance with Mao Tse-Tung’s Communist Red Army against Japanese occupiers. The two Chinese factions had been fighting a civil war, but Chiang’s own officers staged the coup attempt as a way to force Chiang into the alliance. Bullet holes still remain in the window of one of Chiang’s rooms. A sign nearby says the Chinese government has preserved the site for “patriotic education” purposes.
But far and away, Xi’an’s biggest attraction is the site of the terra cotta warriors—seven thousand clay statues entombed to protect the final resting place of Emperor Qin. They’ve been dubbed the eighth wonder of the ancient world, and it’s no exaggeration. (I’ll write more about the terra cotta warriors in my next dispatch.)
In two days, I’ve gone from the cutting edge of China back to the dawn of its nationhood. The story of the terra cotta warriors will, in a way, bring me full circle.