The First Lady’s Travel Journal: Visiting Ancient City Xi’an

Note: This post is part of a series authored by First Lady Michelle Obama to share her visit to China with young people in the U.S. You can read all of the First Lady’s posts

Xi’an, China, — March 24, 2014, — This morning we left Beijing and flew for about two hours to Xi’an, a city of more than 7 million people in central China.  If Xi’an were in America, it would be the second-largest city in the country – trailing only New York City – but in China, a nation of more than 1 billion people, Xi’an isn’t even in the top ten.

First Lady Michelle Obama, Sasha, Malia and Marian Robinson tour the Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi'an, China on March 24, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)
First Lady Michelle Obama, Sasha, Malia and Marian Robinson tour the Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi’an, China on March 24, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

After we arrived at the Xi’an Airport, we traveled to see the Terra Cotta Warriors, an underground army of thousands of life-sized soldiers made from terra cotta clay. These sculptures were hand-made over 2,000 years ago.  They surround the tomb of China’s first emperor, and it’s believed that they were created to protect him in the afterlife.

Still, perhaps the most amazing thing about the Terra Cotta Warriors is that for two thousand years, they were a complete secret.  The warriors were buried and forgotten until 1974, when a group of farmers found the head of one of the soldiers when they were looking for a good spot to dig a water well.  That led archaeologists to uncover the underground army, which included not only clay soldiers, but also clay horses, wooden and bronze chariots and treasures of jade and gold.  The warriors were broken into pieces and had to be painstakingly pieced back together again.

Today, we saw both warriors that had been restored and many that were still in pieces (and we saw several archaeologists down in one of the pits gently unearthing even more warriors).

In the years since the Terra Cotta Warriors were discovered, the Chinese government built a museum that has allowed millions of tourists to visit them.  A few of the soldiers have even been exhibited outside of China. In fact, four years ago, 15 of them were shipped to Washington D.C. and put on exhibit at the National Geographic Museum, where visitors could come and see them face to face just like I did today.

Visiting the Xi’an City Wall

After seeing the Terra Cotta Warriors outside of Xi’an, we returned to the city to view the Xi’an City Wall.

The Xi’an City Wall is the oldest and largest surviving wall of its kind in China. It’s a 40-foot tall rectangle that stretches for 8.5 miles. At its base, the Wall is 50 or 60 feet wide. At the top, it’s about 40 feet wide – wide enough for Xi’an residents and tourists to run, walk, or ride a bike around (it takes about four hours to walk the entire distance at a leisurely pace). From the wall you can see the ancient Bell Tower, a beautiful building which marks the center of the ancient city.

Xi’an was once China’s capital city, and even after the capital was relocated, the city remained an important military stronghold for centuries. Just like the Great Wall, the Xi’an City Wall was originally built for defense, with watchtowers and even a deep moat and drawbridges. Parts of the wall date back to the seventh century, and the wall we know today was completed in the 14th century. Since then, it has been refurbished three times – roughly once every two hundred years – in the late 1500s, the late 1700s and, most recently, in 1983.

Our visit began with a breathtaking display of drumming and music by performers dressed in colorful traditional costumes, and we were presented with a passport to the Wall (which is sort of like getting the key to a city — it’s a ceremonial honor that conveys respect and appreciation). Then, as we walked along the Wall, we were treated to the following wonderful experiences:

Kids from a local kite flying club showed us how to fly kites they had made themselves.

Another group of students from a local school did a double dutch jump rope demonstration (and I couldn’t resist — I kicked off my heels and joined them…but I only did single rope jumping).

A young man demonstrated his ability to solve a Rubiks cube in about 15 seconds flat (I still have no idea how he did it!).

Two other young men showed off their skills doing something that looked like hackey sack where they were kicking around little bean bags with feathers attached (I gave it my best shot, but I couldn’t hold a candle to these guys).

A paper cutting artist showed off her amazing skills — she even made paper cutouts of me and my family!

We saw another performance by drummers and folk dancers — and they did a lovely dance number for us (and my daughters and I joined in for some dancing at the end).

As I watched these performances and demonstrations, I was struck by how this wall, which was constructed as a physical blockade, now serves as a symbolic connection between China’s past and present. There you stand, on top of a wall that’s hundreds of years old – a wall that has withstood war and famine and the rise and fall of dynasties. Yet when you look down, you realize that below you on both sides lies a city not too different from one you’d see in America – a city full of cars and bustling commercial districts, but also quiet residential areas.

It reminded me a little bit of when I met with a class of sixth graders back in the United States – 11 and 12 year olds who visited China last year. They told me that before they left, they assumed they’d encounter historic palaces and temples everywhere they went, but instead, they found massive cities full of skyscrapers and bright lights.

Here at Xi’an, you can’t miss how both sides of China – the ancient and the modern – are intertwined in a city that’s as much a part of China’s past as it is its future.