Xian, seat of the first empire, taps historic Silk Road as route to success

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 July, 2008, 12:00am

Nestled in the middle of the country where plains in the east meet mountains in the west, Shaanxi has played an unrivalled political and economic role in both ancient and modern China.

From the Qin dynasty (221-207BC), the first empire to rule what later became known as the Middle Kingdom, to the all-prosperous Han and Tang dynasties, Xian and its neighbouring city, Xianyang , were the seats of imperial power for 13 dynasties spanning 1,100 years. Even the legendary ancestor of all Chinese people, the Yellow Emperor, died in a part of Shaanxi now called Huangling .

And as China entered the turbulent 20th century, the quaint valley town of Yanan , with its loess mountain caves, provided the perfect shelter for the Red Army and revolutionary leaders including Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai for 11 years at the end of the Long March.

But none of Xian's many historical titles inspire the romance of travel as much as its role as the first stop on the Silk Road, the trade corridor where spices and carpets from as far as Turkey were carried on the backs of camels to a bustling West Side Market in Changan (as Xian was known in the 2nd-century-BC Han dynasty) in exchange for tea leaves and silk.

However, travellers today might leave the city disappointed. Yes, they can visit the Terracotta Warriors, and other tombs of great kings, but inside the cities of Xian and Xianyang traces of the past are now largely buried in concrete.

Those looking for a hint of the hubbub of the Silk Road markets will only find the Muslim quarter, where rows of restaurants and stalls tout for customers, and a few statues of loaded camels and generals on horses stand facing west outside the Yuxiang Gate of the old Xian city wall.

The good news is, all this is going to change.

Responding to claims the city's best was well behind it, Xian Mayor Chen Baogen said: 'Although it is no longer the country's political and economic centre, Xian still retains a foundation of commerce and trade, and a deep historical and cultural background. It has always been an economic centre in the northwest. Xian's biggest speciality and charisma lie in its brilliant interweaving of ancient and modern civilisation.'

The city has decided to flaunt its biggest assets and develop the Silk Road as a brand name to revive past glories.

Since 2006, China has formally worked with five Central Asian countries to have the Old Silk Road added to Unesco's World Heritage list. Of 54 proposed heritage sites along this ancient passage, 48 are in China across six provinces, and Xian alone has six sites with 14 heritage spots.

Apart from the Big Goose Pagoda and the Small Goose Pagoda, almost all of the heritage spots need tidying up or even excavation. Tourists have never set eyes on the remains of the Han and Tang palaces or the West Side Market, but it is hoped that they will be turned into museums in the near future.

'We must first have the hardware. Then we can spread the culture,' Xian Museum director Xiang De said.

Mr Xiang is part of the group preparing these sites for an inspection by the World Heritage Committee next year. He said that when it came down to a conflict between development and heritage, Xian always gave priority to preservation, as was the case when the city built a much longer second ring road and subway to go around heritage sites. But more could be done, he said.

The city is also experimenting with how best to preserve these sites, and one method seems to be the combination of heritage and commerce.

On top of what used to be the biggest market in Changan, the West Side Market, a new museum will open next month displaying artefacts excavated from the site. At the same time, a property developer is striking rental deals with shop owners ahead of the opening of the city's biggest antique market in a large compound of modern Tang-style buildings in 2010.

Xian has also built the Tang Dream theme park on the grounds of the old imperial Furong Yuan park to show the grandeur of the prosperous Tang dynasty when Silk Road trade was at its peak.

Not everyone is impressed by such remakes, but others are glad that at least there is something to see.

'We were surprised that all we found of the ancient Tang was a corner of the city wall,' Lanzhou tourist Yan Hongbin said.

The present Ming dynasty city wall was built on the foundations of the Tang imperial city, parts of which Xian is trying to restore.

Shaanxi Tourism Bureau chief Dong Xianmin has his eyes set on the bigger Silk Road route that links up with the neighbouring provinces of Gansu , Ningxia , Qinghai and Xinjiang . The provinces are working together to promote an integrated tourism concept.

The city hopes once again to leverage its privileged central location to become a regional hub not only within China but between China and the west.

'Xian is the west gate for east China's capital, technology and talent; it is also the east gate for Central Asia's production components to enter the relatively more mature eastern market - Xian's location advantage is very obvious,' Mayor Chen said.