Long before the country – and other countries – kowtowed to Běijīng, there was Cháng’ān: a thriving city of emperors, courtesans, poets, monks, merchants and soldiers; a place where many of the world’s great religions coexisted and Chinese culture reached an apogee of creativity and sophistication. Cháng’ān – present-day Xī’ān – was the fabled beginning and end of the Silk Road, a swirl of colours, lute music and desert dust, where camel caravans unloaded goods from across the Eurasian continent and packed up aspects of China that went on to influence the world. But, like all great metropolises, it had to come to an end. Destroyed in rebellions that marked the decline of the Tang dynasty, by the 10th century Cháng’ān was no more.
Xī’ān today sits in the fertile Wei River valley, one of the epicentres of early Chinese civilisation. The area was home to the capitals of several major dynasties (historians can count 11), stretching all the way back to the Zhou in the 11th century BC. The remnants of this ancient world are everywhere – from the First Emperor’s Terracotta Army to the Muslim influence that still characterises the city.
Understandably, Xī’ān is one of China’s major attractions, but the modern city is also one of the country’s great polarisers – you either love it or hate it. Most people only spend two or three days here, but history buffs could easily stay busy for a week. Topping the list of sights in and around the city are the Terracotta Warriors, the Tomb of Emperor Jingdi, the Muslim Quarter and the City Walls. With a little more time, throw in the pagodas, museums or any number of sites outside the city. Better still, arrange an overnight trip to nearby Huá Shān or Hánchéng.