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I fell in love at Xi’an. And yes, it was unexpected.
But let me tell you how this love story started. I have known Xi’an for quite a while. I knew about the Terracotta Warriors and its discovery in the 1970’s. I knew that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. I knew it was built to protect the Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor in his afterlife. And lastly, I knew it’s breathtaking not only with its vastness but because of its meticulous details. And I thought I was ready to face it when I stepped foot in Xi’an, China. Boy, I was wrong.
It was the second week of May, and I agreed to join a couple of friends in their trip to Xi’an. It was actually my good friend’s dream to see the Terracotta Warriors in person, it wasn’t mine though. I was there out of curiosity and a chance to have a vacation. I wasn’t ecstatic but yes, I was excited. It’s always exciting to see new places and discover new worlds, anyway.
When we arrived in Xi’an, we stayed in a hostel called Xiangzimen Youth Hostel. And it was a great first impression of the city. The hostel was small but had an authentic Chinese vibe to it. It was located just off the main road which leads to famous Xi’an sites like Xi’an City Wall, which, at 12-meter high and 14-kilometers long, is the most complete wall of all China. It was built by Zhu Yuanzhang of the Ming Dynasty to protect the inner city as a military defense base. Today, it is one of the most preserved historical gems of China and turned into a recreational and historical park. And while the rest of Xi’an gets into the modernization wagon, Xi’an remains to preserve the purity of the inner city by restricting buildings inside the building not to surpass the height of the wall.
Just a few blocks away from the hostel are the Bell Tower and Drum Tower. The Bell Tower is the icon of Xi’an City which was built during the Ming Dynasty as well. According to legends, the Bell Tower was built to restrain a dragon which caused earthquakes in the province. However, today, the tower serves as a tourist attraction and a round-about monument. The tower’s beauty can be much appreciated at night when it is all lighted up. Just around the bend is the Drum Tower. Just like its counterpart, the Drum Tower is also a beauty at night. And while the Bell Tower is casted at dawn to signal the beginning of day, the Drum Tower beats at sunset to signal the end of day.
Just right after witnessing the play of drums, in a single hop is the Beiyuanmen Night Market. This is a total foodie haven where all of Xi’an local delicacies and souvenirs can be seen. Just a caution though: most of Xi’an’s offerings are quite spicy, so best to prepare your tongues for something fiery and hot.
Okay, so that’s just for the first day. Moving on to our Day Two, we decided to brave the heights of Huashan or Mt. Hua in Huayin City. Just a few hours outside Xi’an, Huashan is one of the most beautiful mountains in China and according to my friend, the Chinese put Huashan among their Bucket List of Mountains. And even at a distance, as we began to approach the grandiose peaks, I couldn’t agree more. I was truly captivated by the natural formation of rocks and the rich bed of greeneries which envelopes peaks.
In ancient times, Huashan was a favorite among people who seek immortality as many ancient medicinal herbs grow in the mountains. Today, two cable car lines are strategically built towards the North and West Peak, to allow more travelers to visit the famous pilgrimage site. However, do not think that just because you can ride a cable car up the mountains, it’s going to be a piece of cake. It’s not.
When we got there, the North Peak Cable Car was not available due to unstable weather conditions and strong winds. So we were forced to take the line towards the West Peak. From the cable car jump off, we still had to walk approximately 70-storeys high. As we braved through each step towards the peak, my sorry excuse of legs were failing me. And yet, beside me were elderly patrons who had more endurance and lung power than I had. But after about a half day of climbing, seeing the peak was worth every muscle. As I inhaled the fresh air of the top of Huashan and absorbed the spectacular view that presented itself, even if I was the least spiritual in the group that day, I swear I felt like I was actually touching the heavens.
On the ride back to Xi’an, though I couldn’t feel my legs, I was extremely proud to have finished even a portion of Huashan. It was more than bragging rights, but more of internal peace that I was able to take home with me.
Day Three was the most awaited out of all the trips, as we were finally going to see the Terracotta Warriors. It was also a few hours bus ride, but with all the excitement happening, it seemed as if it was just a quick ride.
Upon arriving at the Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Site Museum, a vast piece of land with a gigantic monument of Qin Shi Huang will greet you upfront. There are four large pits holding different artifacts, the largest is the First Pit which was equivalent to at least six basketball courts. It holds thousands of distinct Terracotta Warriors and Horses. Two other pits hold some warriors and carriages, and the fourth pit holds weapons and supplies and is believed to be the storage pit of the buried army statues. To preserve the artifacts, the pits are dark. Several photos are displayed which documented the early years of the discovery of the terracotta warriors. Some of the photos show the sculptures with bright colors, however, due to sun and air exposure, some of them have faded. Each sculpture is unique and realistic.
Visiting the site, I learned some cool facts, like how the higher generals and higher officers are identified by the boat-like shape of their boots and the long pants, while the lower ranking soldiers had less boat-like boots and shorter pants. I also learned that each Terracotta Warrior was based on an actual warrior in ancient times. The artists of the sculptures also signed each of their masterpieces, not for the prestige of it but for the sake of quality-control and monitoring. Since it was a number game in the past, each artist’s creation was checked for quality, and those pieces that did not meet the quality were tracked and punished. That was how they maintained impressive quality; some had probably paid it with their lives.
As I got into my geek-mode and digested every piece of historical fact I could get, what really struck me the most was how they exerted effort in its preservation. There were plenty on-site personnel working when we got there. They also had a preservation area where broken soldiers or those with missing pieces were rehabilitated. The effort put into this project showed how much the Chinese values their history and their roots. At that moment, I wanted to applaud these people who gave such dedication in the name of history.
With still a little hangover from the Terracotta Warriors site, we went to take a peak in the actual tomb of the famous first Chinese Emperor. However, due to preservation and rehabilitation concerns, the park was closed and we were only able to observe from afar.
Then on we went to Huaqing Palace, a complex of hot springs known in history as the bathing site of the emperor. The complex is home to many historical events which made it quite legendary. It was built by Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty for his beloved concubine, Lady Yang Guifei. The love story between the Emperor and Lady Yang was depicted in the famous literary piece, “Song of Everlasting Regret” by Bai Yuji. It was also the same site where the renowned Chiang Kai-shek was kidnapped by Zhang Xueliang.
Walking around the palace, you can catch a glimpse of the ancient way of life through their bathing process. Learning about something as simple as bathing made me realize how lucky we are today. In the past, bathing was a luxury; it was an honor to be cleansed with natural and pure water. But today, we devaluate that privilege by wasting water and destroying the planet. Those were the simpler times that we really need to look back into to appreciate our present.
But just when I thought then that it was the end of my Xi’an experience, we were escorted out of the palace and invited back after an hour or so. According to our tour itinerary, we were about to watch a show inspired by the “Song of Everlasting Regret.” Queuing back to the palace, I was confused with where we were headed. Earlier that afternoon, I did not see a theater or a stage within the complex. So it was odd for us to go back in for a show that was supposed to be massive and grand.
However, the moment I set foot into the palace again, I was astonished. The central palace greeted us with pride as it was converted into an outdoor theater holding hundreds of audience. In a matter of two or three hours, the palace square held hundreds of seats facing the man-made lake which was converted into a stage with the mountains as the backdrop.
The moment the show started, I felt out of breath, and this went on the entire hour of the show. It was the best production I have ever encountered both in real life, and even on research. They used elements of water, wind, fire, and lights, and they had the mountain and the sky as the backdrop of the show. The stage was also constantly moving with every scene. The show used both natural and modern technology elements such as LED monitor and lights. Everything was well orchestrated and my jaw dropped in awe. I was moved by the story and was impressed by the show. I can still feel the chills of that show even a few weeks after.
By the time I got home, I still felt the euphoria that was Xi’an. And it lasted week after week. I am constantly seeing bits and pieces of the trip, relieving each memory as if I left my soul there. That’s how I realized my truth—that I was never the same when I left Xi’an. I fell in love with Xi’an and it will always have that piece of my heart left buried underneath its skies and rocks.
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