Rank outsider

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 December, 2007, 12:00am

The contrast is striking. In the foreground stands one of the many watchtowers that line the medieval wall of Xian, a former imperial Chinese capital; in the distance an apartment building under construction rises skywards.

During the Tang dynasty (AD618-907), when the city was known as Chang'an, there was a wall here. It was rebuilt by Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming dynasty, in 1378. Almost 15km long and surrounded by a moat, it is now one of the best preserved fortified city walls in the world, standing 12 metres high and 12 to 18 metres thick.

A regular venue for cultural events, the wall is also a good place from which to gain a perspective of the city. You can walk along it, but tourists are more often seen on bicycles. Having been designed to facilitate the speedy movement of troops in times of attack, the wall offers plenty of room for manoeuvre.

At both ends of the city stands a gate, with the South Gate being the busiest. Within the walls near the southern entrance is the Forest of Stone Steles Museum, of particular interest to students of Chinese language and history. Here, stone tablets engraved with calligraphy, painting and historical records are on display.

At the centre of the old city stands the Bell Tower, built in 1384 under orders from Zhu. It served as a platform from which to survey the surrounding countryside, to provide an early warning of an attack by enemies. These days, the surrounding shopping malls are the draw for many visitors and locals, but the well-preserved wooden tower is worth a look; a wonderful example of Ming-style architecture, with three layers of eaves and an internal spiral staircase.

Its sister building, the Drum Tower, is nearby. Built in 1380, it holds 24 drums linked to the Chinese agricultural calendar and since 1996 has been home to what is reputed to be the largest drum in China.

Next to the Drum Tower is Muslim Street, famous for food such as steamed stuffed buns and fruit pies with persimmon. Xian has a Muslim population of 50,000, descended from 7th-century Persian and Afghan traders who did business along the Silk Road before marrying Han women and settling in the city. Northwest of the tower is the Great Mosque, originally constructed in AD742 without the domes and minarets common on mosques elsewhere.

The attractions continue outside the old city walls. At a tea house on Xiao Zhai Dong Road, reached by exiting through the South Gate, an elegant young woman explains the intricacies of various teas. Ginseng oolong tea is good for the skin and stomach, she says, and the black lychee tea was said to maintain the beauty of the emperor's concubines.

Nearby is the Shaanxi History Museum. With Xian having been the capital during dynasties spanning 1,100 years, this is very much a museum about the history of ancient China. Exhibits are arranged chronologically and walking from one hall to the next gives an understanding of successive dynasties. One highlight is the model of the city during the Tang era and preceding Sui period.

A few blocks to the southeast is the unusually named Big Wild Goose Pagoda, a structure rising 64 metres towards the skies. It was constructed in AD652, during the reign of Tang emperor Gaozong, to house an array of Sanskrit scriptures and relics brought to China by a prominent Buddhist scholar, Xuanzang, when he returned from a 17-year journey to India along the Silk Road. There is a sense of peace here, focused on the statue of the Buddha serenely seated in a square next to the pagoda.

And the origin of the name? According to legend, monks of one branch of Buddhism, who were then allowed to eat meat, couldn't find any. When their prayers were answered by a wild goose dropping from the sky before them, they decided it was a sign they should be more holy and stop eating meat.

Together with the 'big' is the Small Wild Goose Pagoda, which affords views over Xian. The pagoda has survived 70 earthquakes since AD707, the year in which it was built, apparently because its base is made from packed earth shaped like a hemisphere, which allows pressure to be evenly distributed. The scenic area here includes a museum, a temple and gardens - and something rather unusual: stone posts engraved with the heads of gothic-style figures that were once used for tying horses to.

Of course, no trip to Xian would be complete without an excursion 35km outside the city. It was here, in a field in 1974, that peasants uncovered fragments of terracotta warriors while digging for water, leading to one of the greatest of all archaeological finds. Emperor Qin Shihuang, who had been the first to unify China, in 221BC, wanted protection on his journey to the afterlife and had placed around his mausoleum an estimated 8,000 'warriors', accompanied by horses and chariots. All but one of the warriors were unearthed broken, presumably victims of the peasant uprising four years after the emperor's death, so what visitors see now is the result of painstaking reconstruction work by scientists and archaeologists.

Faces from 2,000 years ago - each warrior was given a unique look - greet the multitudes who travel to Xian to look into the eyes of the past.

Getting there: Dragonair (www.dragonair.com) flies from Hong Kong to Xian. Rooms at the four-star Bell Tower Hotel cost from HK$365 a night. See www.asiarooms.com.