China - A Planner's Journey


The photo above conveys a sense of the mixture of old and new in the heart of the ancient city, with the Drum Tower rising over the scene. The blue skylights to the right provide natural light to a multistory underground shopping center.

Xi'an is one of China's most ancient cities. It has been a major portal to the west and other civilizations throughout history. The Silk Road, Buddhism and Islam entered China through its gates.

Much of the original part of Xi'an lies within the old city walls. Sadly, much of the old city within these walls is now gone, replaced with new or faux older structures. Major exceptions to this loss are the Drum and Bell Towers and the Moslem Quarter.

Big Wild Goose Pagoda

This 64 meter tall pagoda stands outside the city wall within a large, walled temple complex first built around 650 AD to house Buddhist scriptures brought back from India. I found the temple and its environs a microcosm for the changes taking place in China today - from belated recognition for older values and places, an emphasis on the flashy aspects of modernization, and the ferment of economic growth.

Within the complex, in front of the pagoda, construction workers and skilled craftsmen are recreating the great hall of the temple. A massive fountain system - with water spraying to the music of Tchaikovsky - was recently added to the complex's northern side. Major construction of an exhibition hall and tournament center is occuring across the street, a couple of blocks to the south. [Note the reverse swastika, a Buddhist symbol meaning well-being, on the chest of the Buddha carved from jade on an interior wall in the upper right image.]

Terra Cotta Warriers

Probably the most famous tourist location in the Xi'an area is the site of the Terra Cotta Warriers discovered in 1974 by a farmer digging a well. The warriers were buried over 2000 years ago to guard Shi Huang, the emperor who first unified China. Archeological excavations continue at night when no tourists are around.

Moslem Quarter

The Moslem Quarter is a section within the walls of old Xi'an that survived the 'modernization' of recent years. The powers that be within the city administration were finally convinced that the old quarter's advantages as a tourist draw outweighed any benefits associated with new, updated structures.

Great Mosque

Situated within the Moslem Quarter is the Great Mosque - a blend of traditional Chinese and Islamic architecture. The Chinese influence is clearly dominant. Its construction started in 742 during the Tang dynasty. Additions were made during subsequent dynasties. It is a key national historic site under special protection.

City Wall

The city wall forms a rectangle with two long and two short sides. Each side has a gate. The entire 14 kilometer circumference of the wall, along with some of its moat, has been restored within the last couple of years. This most recent version of the city wall was built during the Ming dynasty. It is one of the longest surviving city walls in the world. The images below were taken of and from the wall and give a sense of the magnitude of its structure and the variety of life in Xi'an.

Click on the box to the right to generate a series of photos taken from Xi'an's ancient city wall

H Graem © 2007