150 meters wide, the Red Bird street was flooded by the Chang’an’s citizens. They were chanting prayers and clashing cymbals, blowing conches and burning incense. It was the eighth day of the first month of the year 645. The great procession advanced slowly, carrying 657 big books, relics of the Buddha and seven gold, silver and sandalwood images. “Every monastery was competing with all the others to prepare its best banners, carpets, umbrellas, precious tables and palanquins”, wrote Hui Li, the historian of that time who recorded the event. “They sent monks and nuns in ceremonial robes. It was the most splendid event since the death of the Buddha!” (“Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud”, Sun Shuyun, 2003) All this to honour a humble monk that had clandestinely left the city 18 years before, breaking an Imperial edict, to set himself on a lone trip to India.
I read about monk Xuanzang’s feat from Sun Shuyun’s wonderful book when I was in Pune, near Mumbai, in 2006. I was fascinated by this character: wise and brave, intrepid and determined. I got interested on the Silk Road since I used to listen a Kitaro’s album named after it, in the 80’s, but Xuanzang made feel that I wanted to follow his steps, and those of the many travellers who went along it for so many centuries. Also, that’s how I felt seduced by Chang’an, today’s Xi’an, which could be compared with New York, but in the 7th century. Xuanzang had left a country torn by civil war (two thirds of the population had perished) and breaking emperor Taizong’s etat de siège, imposed after he had taken the throne by the sword. 18 years later, the monk had been received with glory because the monarch needed his accurate reports on the Western territories (current Xinjiang province) in order to launch a reconquest. Along the millennia, China’s history has resembled that of a heart’s sistole and diastole, pushing its borders thousands of kilometers forth and back towards Central Asia. And Taizong was interested in regaining those lands.
When Xuanzang returned to Chang’an, there were no traces of the disaster he left almost two decades ago. It was the richest and biggest city on Earth, with one million inhabitants (it would double it a century later), a quarter of whom where born in other kingdoms. That’s not common in China’s history. “Since the old times, we have always loved ourselves too much and despised foreigners”, declared Taizong before his officials. “But I love ones and others the same”. A Chinese proverb says that the ocean is vast because it has drunk all rivers. The emperor was confident in that foreign influences would just make Chinese culture richer and brighter.
Chang’an was the begginning of the Silk Road, one end of the connection between East and West, and everybody in Asia wanted to be there. Emperor Taizong was always pleased to receive foreign embassies and had a good eye to detect among their ranks those who could serve him well in court. In ceremonies and special events, he was pleased to see his officials all dressed in their national costumes. Chang’an was a place where all main Asian languages could be heard.
1400 years later, Red Bird street has shrunk to a half. Huge offices and commercial buildings line up there now. The only trace of its former glory is the Red Bird Gate, opening the huge city wall (15 to 18 meters wide and 12 meters high) for the noisy flow of buses, cars and bicycles. Off to the right, there is an interesting neighbourhood, though. It leads to the Forest of Stelae, an almost one-thousand-year-old museum I visited with my friend Elli, a German girl I met just here two and a half years ago, and who happened to be visiting when I arrived to our old, lovely hostel, Qixian (Seven Sages). The museum was set up in 1087 to house many documents in stone, including some written by Xuanzang and Confucious. In its area, traditional houses have been reconverted in antiques shops, restaurants and tea halls, like a movie set. This impression grows stronger as the employees, mostly old men dressed with Mao-style shirts, seat in little bunks and read the papers with their black, rounded glasses. The appreciated art of calligraphy is practised on the street by experts who delicately show their skills to the many Chinese spectators.
Chang’an’s cosmopolitism was also expressed in its spiritual life. There are many temples that in time were ruled by Nestorian Christians and Zoroastrians, there is a couple of synagogues and the fascinating old market is presided by the Grand Mosque. Also, my good friend Marga, a Spanish journalist living in Beijing, told me about a French nun living in a Daoist monastery. And there are the Buddhist, of course, and I had to visit the Big Wild Goose Pagoda (there is a small one too), built under emperor Taizong’s orders to lodge the treasures brought by Xuanzang: the big books contained the Buddha’s Sutras (teachings). The monk had risked his life to obtain them in India, as China’s Buddhists were learning from second hand, incomplete manuscripts. Curiously, the Pagoda is not in the walled, old-city area, but in the modern town, about three kilometers South. From the Pagoda’s last floor, 64 meters high, not many years ago you could see all of Xi’an, but not anymore: new developments are filling its surroundings with big appartment blocks. The Pagoda was built in the middle of a wide, pre-existant religious complex with temples and schools. On the esplanade before the entrance, there is a statue of the brave monk, where many people want to have their pictures taken because most Chinese grew up with him: not with his real character, but with one appearing in a famous TV cartoon that even reached some Western countries, The Monkey King: in this version, the monk makes his way to India thanks to the valuable help of a super-monkey able to fly and break mountain ranges.
Last time I was in Xi’an, in 2006, it was September. I have bad luck here, because now it’s March and, as then, the sky is grey and the weather, cold. Furthermore, this time, I was not-so-kindly asked to leave the Great Mosque by a grumpy old man who thought irrespectful that I was taking pictures during Friday’s service, on the courtyard –I wasn´t allowed to enter the temple proper. The mosque was built in 742, a century after Xuanzang’s big adventure, and it is a magnificent building divided in five courtyards, a mixture between Chinese and Islamic styles. I had a particular interest in visiting Xi’an’s Muslim quarter because it’s inhabitants, the Hui people, are specially linked with the Silk Road: they descend from the merchants who came from the desert many centuries ago, travelling in the caravans loaded with products from India, Persia and the Mare Nostrum. Xi’an is the door to Muslim China. I’ll make a stop at the Buddhist Tibetan Kumbum monastery, in Qinghai province, on the Northern edge of the Tibetan plateau. But from now on, and until I get to the Mediterranean, I’ll cross lands where almost only Allah is worshipped. It will look a lot less like Xuanzang saw it, and more like Gengis Khan shaped it and Marco Polo found it. Plus the colonial hands’ lay out, of course: Stalin´s in Central Asia and the Caucasus, British and French in the Middle East, everybody’s in Afghanistan (and they all got burned).