Article by Tim King
One of the more fascinating things about living in Xi’an is the constant push-and-pull between tradition and modernity; the endlessly talked-about “thousands of years of history” juxtaposed with the city’s efforts to become more “international” (whatever that means). That duality sometimes manifests in interesting ways, like a metro station underneath the Bell Tower, or, my personal favorite, a Burger King with a view of the Dayanta.Whopper Juniors and towers for bells notwithstanding, if you really want to experience both parts of Xi’an’s soul, the old and the new, there may be no better place to visit than an area out east known as Banpo.
Before we talk about what there is to do there, we should talk briefly about how Banpo came to be what it is today. Banpo was targeted for development in the early 1950s as a place that would be perfect for a couple of factories. However, as is the case with people digging pretty much anywhere in Shaanxi Province, history was not far beneath the soil—in this case, a village from the Neolithic Era.
Carbon dating found that the site was around 6000 years old, and there was a treasure trove of archaeological finds hiding underground. You’ll find all of them preserved in the Banpo Museum: bone tools and trinkets, pottery and preserved skeletons of the Banpo people are just some of what’s on display. Entry is 65RMB per person, and a brisk jaunt through the exhibits and premises will take around an hour (of course, longer if you’re stopping to carefully read all the signs that accompany the exhibits). It’s a great opportunity to learn about this proto-Xianese culture, and the museum itself is a quiet respite from the more hectic sites that tourists flock to. No one will be pestering you to be your tour guide, the only souvenir stand during my visit was a guy selling flutes and there are no hidden costs to get a “full” experience. What you see is what you get and you’ll be able to enjoy it at your leisure, whether that’s a long, hard look at the excavation site or a rest in one of the replica Neolithic houses standing in the park behind the museum.
That discovery didn’t impede development of the Banpo area, however; it just kind of moved development to the side a bit. The factories still went up, and, after being decommissioned decades later, their shells just kind of sat there for a while—until artists showed an interest in the space and moved in. Now known as the Banpo Art District, the former manufacturing hub is a small, but easily navigable labyrinth of halls and alleyways riddled with dance studios, art galleries, bakeries, offices and a bar.
That said, the real reason you should go is to check out the street art. You’ll be greeted by what is probably a to-scale statue of Optimus Prime, and things get both poppier and weirder from there. Murals are plentiful, from giant pastiches of the Simpsons, to the more bizarre (like one that can only be described as “child in a boat on a moat getting his bare ass paddled”). There are also a couple of statues and installations around, including but not limited to a busted-up sedan covered in rivets and equations and a rusting train sitting in a reflecting pool. A lot of the time, it feels like a beginner’s course in urban exploration and, as evidenced by the numerous people you’ll see having professional photos taken of them, it’s also a nice little playground for photographers.
Getting to either place is pretty easy; just take Metro Line 1 to Banpo Station. Once there, choose your own adventure: leave from Exit A and go straight down the road until the first big intersection and take a left to find the Banpo Museum, or go out of Exit C and take a 5-minute walk to the Art District. For the indecisive, visiting both is totally doable in a matter of hours and, as you’ll find, will make for one of Xi’an’s great unheralded daytrips.
Tim King loves his couch but even he has to get up and explore sometimes. He is also the editor-in-chief of Xianease Magazine.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org