By Jack Souther
By the time our jet had climbed through the dense layer of brown gloom into clear air over central China the city of Beijing and its millions of smog-spewing cars was many miles behind. At first only the tops of the mountains rise above the polluted air that fills the valleys like the tentacles of some giant organism draped across the land. But finally, as we continue southwest on our way to Xian, the last of the smog enveloping China's capital city is left behind and the Taihang Mountains stretch out to the horizon under a pale blue sky.
It's 900 km, about a two-hour flight on China Northwest Airlines, from Beijing to Xian. Most of the route is across a drab landscape of deeply eroded, brush-covered mountains and dry valleys. I search the barren landscape for signs of habitation — a village, a house, a road — but there is little evidence of a human presence in this desolate, water-starved region of China. Descending into the Yellow River valley and crossing into the province of Shaanxi is like entering a different world — a world transformed by water. The pilot banks into Wei River valley, a major tributary of the mighty Yellow He, and begins his final approach into Xian. Below us the bench-lands are covered with a checkerboard of lush fields and the Quinling Mountains on our left are green with patches of forest.
The rich agricultural land of the central Shaanxi plain is often called "the cradle of Chinese civilization," a place where human habitation can be traced back more than a million years. A 6,000-year-old neolithic village has been unearthed on the eastern outskirts of Xian and, long before China was unified, Shaanxi is where rival fiefdoms battled one another during the "warring states period". When Qin Shihuang unified China in 221 BC and declared himself its first emperor the city of Xian became China's capital. And for more than a thousand years, through the reign of 11 subsequent dynasties, it remained the political, economic, and cultural centre of China.
Today Xian, the largest city in Northwest China, is the capital of Shaanxi Province. According to Xio (just call me Joe), our local guide, its eight million residents have a rather superior attitude and righteously regard themselves and their city as the centre of Chinese culture. "In Beijing people think only about making money," he says, "but here in Xian we are more focused on education, art, and philosophy. I will show you many wonderful things," Joe promises.
As the eastern terminus of the legendary Silk Road, Xian has always been a cosmopolitan city — a gateway between the Middle Kingdom and the rest of the world. Along with exotic goods from Central Asia, India and Europe the great camel caravans brought in new ideas, exposing China to the influences of Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism. The Great Mosque of Xian was established by Muslim traders and craftsmen who came in with the caravans and stayed. It is now one of the biggest in China and the centrepiece of Xian's thriving Muslim quarter. Buddhism, too, was imported to China through Xian's open door and, at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, Joe tells us the story of Xuanzang. "He was a great monk who, in 629 AD, went on a 16-year pilgrimage to India to study Buddhist philosophy. When he returned he translated many Buddhist Scriptures to Chinese. This temple was built in his honour and to store his work. The monks named it when they saw a goose fall from the sky and thought it represented Buddha."