Xi’an: So Much History!

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The ancient legend, passed down from generation to generation, told of the first Chinese emperor who was so afraid of the afterlife that he arranged to bring thousands of warriors to guard him when he passed on. It was not important that they had not yet died. They were buried alive with him when he died, along with gold, food, livestock, clothing and anything else he would need in the next world. This was a legend that every Chinese child was taught as historical fact in school for thousands of years. It was something they all believed as much as we Americans believe in Washington crossing the Delaware. Thousands of people buried alive just to appease one man's ego. It seems difficult to believe, but was it true? No one knew for sure, until about 35 years ago. One day in 1974, a poor farmer needed to dig a well to irrigate his land. As he dug, he came across some ceramic material and was not sure what it was. He thought that it might be valuable, so he contacted the local authorities. It turned out to be the answer to the myth of the buried soldiers. The government took over the land and eventually discovered thousands of clay (terracotta) figures. Unfortunately, they were all in pieces, but once they were reconstructed, it was discovered that each figure was individual, based on a real person. It seems that the legend was real, at least in part. Xi'an, formerly Chang'an, is the home of these Terracotta Soldiers, tasked with guarding the first emperor of China in the afterlife. Currently, this is what Xi'an is known for and the city serves mainly as a tourist destination. However, Chang'an was the capital of several dynasties of ancient China and the history here is rich beyond most, if not all, Western destinations. The silk road, the ancient highway connecting the East with the West, begins in Xi'an. Several pivotal battles were fought here. A 500,000 year old man was found nearby. But, probably the most significant historical occurrence was when the Chinese monk, Xuanzang, brought Buddhist scriptures back from India and transformed the country's religion into what it is today (more or less). Xi'an is, today, a city for tourists. I am not at all a fan of an organized tour group. If I want to hang out with a bunch of old, white Americans, there are plenty of places in the U.S. where I can get my thrills. However, I do feel like there are certain times when hiring a private guide is well worth it. With the right guide, you can get the inside scoop on things, learn a little history and even save some money if he is trustworthy and helps you avoid the tourist traps. We were fortunate that our guide was honest, knowledgeable and spoke excellent English. We spent two days with Rafael of Xi'an Auto & Tour Company. He is not your average tour guide. First, he did not take us souvenir shopping (although he said that he would if we wanted to). Second, we had already secured hotel accommodations outside the city, but he told us that if we stayed there, we would really be spending most of the time in the car. Instead, he found us a non-tourist hotel, for less than we were paying (which was already very low), right in the middle of the city, walking distance to the night market. Let me explain the non-tourist hotel. This is a hotel that is not licensed to market to tourists and foreigners. They are allowed to let them stay in the hotel, but the foreigners must find it on their own. They are generally cheaper because only Chinese natives know about them. In our case, it was a very nice hotel and very convenient to our touristy destinations. If you are a regular reader of our blog posts, you might notice that Sara and I tend to get ourselves into sticky situations more often than not. Unfortunately for you, the reader, this time, everything went pretty smoothly. Rafael took very good care of us and drove us to all of the sites, explaining the history in great detail. We saw the city walls, a night-time show, the night market, the Terracotta Soldiers and the Huaqing Hot Spring. (Please note that the Huaqing Hot Spring is the site of the Xi'an Incident, prior to World War II involving Chiang Kai-skek and possibly changing the future of China as we know it. Even though I really enjoy history and thoroughly enjoyed seeing this, I did not want to bore you with the details. Just know that if you delight in reading about and seeing things related to WWII, you do not want to miss this.) If you would like to see more of our experience in Xi'an, please check out our video and photo gallery. Xi'an was very calm and orderly with Rafael guiding us. Then, it was time to take our first train ride of the trip. He dropped us off at the Xi'an Train Station, bid us, "Good luck!" and left. We were now on our own, amongst thousands of people, all trying to get on a train. Even though we had Sara with us, who could speak and read Mandarin, the train station was a very hectic experience. There is little English, either written or spoken, in the station. We were supposed to be in a First Class waiting area, where they would announce our train's arrival, and we were, but so were hundreds of others. When our train came, there was no announcement on the big board, some lady just shouted out that our train was in the station and it was time to board...in Chinese. We have a video on the way with more details... _______________ I just wanted to add one more detail about the Terracotta Soldiers. The legend taught for thousands of years to the Chinese about the soldiers being buried alive is still believed by some in the older generations of Chinese and Taiwanese. They were taught this as fact for so long that even with the discovery of the Terracotta Soldiers, the belief is still that the soldiers were buried alive and were transformed into clay after burial. It is possible to purchase a mini replica of a soldier as a souvenir, but many Chinese believe they are haunted and will bring you bad luck. Buyer beware!
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