Back to the Future: XI’AN

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Article by Demi Edwards

Imagine a place where all around you there are exotic languages being spoken. You see new goods for the first time, people who look different, smells that you have never experienced before, your senses are overwhelmed by the newness that can be felt all around. You feel apprehensive but at the same time you can’t wait to see what’s around the next corner. That is how I have come to imagine the West Market during the height of the Tang Dynasty (618CE to 907CE). The Silk Road (~130BCE to ~1435CE) once led right into the heart of the ancient city of Xi’an, or “Chang’an,” as it was historically known. From then on, there has been an incredible and lasting impact from the myriad cultures that found their way to Xi’an along the Silk Road.

Let’s be real: most people that visit Xi’an are not looking for big-city excitement or cutting-edge technology that you might find visiting Beijing or Shanghai. What people look for in Xi’an is what no mainstream city can give them: countless historical land marks and artifacts. It seems people are finding new sites every day. We all know how the Terracotta Army was found, two guys trying to dig a well and, voila, they’ve discovered one of the greatest archeological sites on Earth. Who knows, you might be the one to find the next big artifact if you look hard enough! If you don’t have the kind of time it would take to do such a thing, you can still check out the many Silk Road legacies found in the Xi’an we know and love today.

Near the Tang West Market sits the Silk Road museum that has expertly preserved the sites of some of the first stalls within the market. Guests who visit the museum literally have the opportunity to step into history as they can walk atop the historic site that has been contained within the museum. An odd notion if you think about it, that thousands of years ago people from all over the world stood in the exact place underneath your feet. In a way, you too have become part of the Silk Road tradition upon observing the ruins. Stepping back in time, placing yourself in the mindset is one of the most incredible feelings, especially for a history nerd such as myself. After stepping back in time, guests have the chance to travel through the rest of the Silk Road’s history. The cultural significance the Silk Road once held might not be as exciting anymore, because in just a few clicks we can instantaneously be connected anywhere in the world. Once you pull yourself back into the past and walk throughout the museum you have the opportunity to see some of exchanges and artifacts that have been left behind.

Imagery is powerful. It transcends any language barrier and is one of the easiest ways to trace connections between artifacts. So, seeing camels all throughout China was a little confusing to me at first. Digging deeper into that odd notion, it became apparent that not only was I becoming more and more fascinated with camel imagery, but ancient Chinese people seemed to feel the same way. I had always seen camels at zoos, but it wasn’t until my dad moved to the UAE that I really got to see one. There is something about having that direct connection that makes the animal even more mesmerizing. It’s the same feeling that one might get from seeing a panda for the first time; it’s an animal that you cannot help but fall in love with. If you don’t have that feeling, well, I suggest you search for baby camels online, or any of the videos of pandas doing silly things. Other motifs found throughout the museum that would have been brought to China through the connection to the Middle East include people, horses, grapes, rugs and dogs, just to name a few out of the plethora of images. There were two other lasting impacts of Silk Road exchange, and one could argue that they are still two major pillars of Xi’an’s rich culture.

China has many minorities throughout the country and one of the largest groups can be found near the Grand Mosque of Xi’an, and the surrounding streets that make up the Muslim Quarter. Many of the Hui people that populate the district are direct descendants of travelers along the Silk Road. It’s fascinating to walk around the streets of this market place, listen to the vendors trying to sell their delicious-smelling food or wacky-looking snacks and hear the buzz of different languages being spoken around you. Again, not only have you visited the site of a historic market but modern visitors to Xi’an have the chance to experience the Middle Eastern influences firsthand. There are some that claim you can seek out vendors who are selling foods made from recipes that have been handed down for generations. Chinese tradition and culture mixed with Middle Eastern culture has taken on a concentrated form here in Xi’an. Even though I have visited the Muslim Quarter multiple times, it never ceases to amaze me.

The other major lasting impact from the Silk Road was Buddhism, brought in from India. The Big Wild Goose Pagoda, an image seen all throughout the city of Xi’an (often with some camels around it), seems to suggest that Silk Road is still alive and well. The Tang Dynasty brought the Pagoda construction to life. Allowing this pillar of Buddhist faith to stand within the ancient capital highlighted the Tang emperors’ fascinations with the unknown, the new and the different. Without the Tang, China might not have the amazingly wonderful and diverse minority population that it has. The Pagoda itself brought many faith-seeking people into Xi’an to study and learn. In turn, they shared their new ideas with the locals and left incredible cultural icons that people to this day can appreciate.

While visiting or living in a new place take time to stop and look carefully. The large world we live in, full of people, technology and other things that demand our attention day in and day out, is smaller than we think. Being able to stop and appreciate these ancient connections of history and realize that, although the original people have long passed, their cultural legacy is alive and vivid to this day.

Demi Edwards is the Queen of America and the coolest person in the world.

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