Fortress opens window to ancient China

I imagine it got lonely up here at night in the darkness, 12 meters off the ground. It was probably quiet too with the entire city sleeping, and with no cell phones, no radio, no TV. Just a bow and arrow and maybe some food and water to tide you over till the morning.

The sunrise must have been brilliant, with a view extending several kilometers into the countryside. Even the most indecisive minds likely had ample time to make judgments about the intentions of men approaching the gate. Business or battle. Friend or foe.

The towers where the first protectors of Xi’an patrolled in the 14th century are today home to merchants peddling cheap souvenirs and renting bikes to tourists. There is no view of the horizon anymore, thanks to scores of high-rise apartment buildings and air pollution from factories. The silence is gone too, as cars and buses lined bumper-to-bumper rumble through the wall’s gates all hours of the day, entering the heart of a growing city with a population of already 8 million.

A street in the city center that leads to one of the wall's gates.

The wall is now a tourist attraction, one of many sites that draw visitors from around the world to Xi’an, in northwest China’s Shaanxi province. The wall, shaped like a rectangle, surrounds the city center. It was built in 1370, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and is one of the best preserved ancient walls in China.

At 14 kilometers long, the entire length of the wall takes about four hours to walk. Bikes are available to rent and make a lap around the wall manageable if you’re strapped for time. I chose to walk, stopping every couple of hundred meters to check out the street life below.

Apartments, shops and parks have been built along the wall on both the inner and outer sides, and from above I was able to observe little slices of life – old men playing cards, a father holding his infant son up to a bird cage for a closer look, women practicing tai chi – without feeling like I was intruding.

Far beyond the wall, on the outskirts of the city, lies Xi’an’s most well-known tourist attraction: the Terracotta Warriors. They are a collection of more than 8,000 life-size clay statues of soldiers and horses that were discovered in 1974 by farmers digging a water well. The site is located about 1.5 km from the tomb of Emperor Qin Shihuang (died 210 BC).

The statues were excavated, and vaults were later built over the pits to protect them from wind and rain. Visitors aren’t allowed in the pits, so the crowds bottleneck at the entrances to the vaults, one of the prime spots to snap a photo that captures the scale of the exhibit.

A more intimate view of the statues is available in a museum near the vaults. There, you can get within a few centimeters of sculptures that had been individually placed behind protective glass.

Both the sculptures and the vaults were impressive, but the facility had a sterilized feel. The roof of the largest vault reminded me of the kind of dome you might see over a sporting arena. While walking through it, I halfway expected the lights to dim at any moment and speakers blasting techno trance to lower from the ceiling.

I only spent a weekend in Xi’an – not nearly enough time to explore the city – but it has already become my second favorite city in China.

The drum and bell towers near the city center.

Painting inside the drum tower.


Inscription on an ancient bell.

The city wall around sunset.

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12 thoughts on “Fortress opens window to ancient China

  1. The haze in the air is apparent in many of your photos. This is what many people and politicians (stated as though politicians not people) want for the US in exchange for more money to buy more ipods. Your writing and photos are always enlightening.

    • Thanks Doug. The pollution in Xi’an was just as bad if not worse than Beijing’s. Every large city (large in Chinese terms … more than a million) I’ve been to has issues with air pollution. It’s one of the side effects of progress by any means necessary.

  2. I love the history and the photos. Thank you for sharing, great post! My daughter decided in 7th grade to take Mandarin as her language of study. I am certain, someday, we will be visiting China. I am grateful to see some of it now, through your posts.

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