Author Benjamin Carlson Photography Jasper James
Even in a country as steeped in history as China, Xi’an is mindbendingly old. National capital for 13 dynasties, city of eight names, anchor of the Silk Road, an ancient metropolis one and a half times the size of Rome, Xi’an has more than 3,000 years under its belt. In the 13th century, one visitor wrote of the city’s “noble, rich, and powerful” past—and Marco Polo wasn’t easily impressed. Xi’an is a city both blessed and burdened by memories of greatness. Residents still speak of the Tang dynasty as if it ended yesterday (as opposed to AD 907). Every dingy noodle shop boasts of recipes dating back a century or more. Subway construction has hit repeated delays as diggers encounter crypts and other relics beneath the streets. But Xi’an isn’t just for history buffs. It’s also a loud, teeming city that captures all the glories and growing pains of contemporary China. The contradictions between an illustrious past and the sometimes awkward ambitions of the present are readily apparent: Cranes and concrete towers clutter the skyline beyond the ancient city walls; peasant folkways wend alongside roaring highways. But it’s this—the clash of ageless tranquillity and breathless dynamism—that makes Xi’an such a fascinating, exciting place.