With more than 5,000 years of history, China is home to ancient archaeological sites preserved through the sands of time. Don your Indiana Jones hat, and step into a bygone era.
Concealed under clay earth and behind secret doors, treasure troves of ancient archaeological finds lay scattered across every corner of China. Like an explorer on a path of discovery, you’ll be astounded by these hidden gems of Chinese civilization. It’s time to get your hands dirty and step into these remnants of the world’s oldest civilization.
Turpan: A World Underground
Jos Enrique via flickr
Just beyond the Flaming Mountains, an arid wind slices through the eggshell blue sky, whipping burning sand against a remote Silk Road trading post. The Taklamakan desert’s stubborn encroachment has persisted here for centuries, driven by frequent sandstorms that blacken the sky. But the Kroran and Yanqi people who lived here long ago knew the secret to this city’s resistance lied underneath, not above ground.
Below Turpan’s monotonous clay city walls lies a vast and intricate irrigation system: over 2,500km of underground karez bring water down from the exposed Tianshan Mountains to irrigate farmlands and sustain the city below. The karez, one of the oldest systems of its kind in the world, has served as the lifeblood of Uygur people living here for 2,000 years, bringing water to chaffed mouths of dusty camels and life to fields of plump Hami melons since traders along the Silk Road made Turpan a routine stop.
The best time to come here is in the late summer and fall when the temperature cools and the Wuhebei grapes are in season. Spend your morning running your fingers along the coarse, mud-packed walls of an ancient karez, admiring its construction as you sip cool, fresh mineral water from a thousand year old well. In the afternoon, retreat to the shade of a nearby qunje for a taste of some local raisins and try a glass of famous Turpan Sauvignon Blanc.
Visit Turpan on our Marco Polo’s Silk Road tour
Jinsha: Roots of the Orient
In 2001 a local construction company changed Chinese history by happening upon a hidden hoard of jade and ivory tools. They didn’t know it then, but this chance discovery on Chengdu’s basin-plains would be one of China’s most significant archaeological finds.
Today you can enter the floor of the Jinsha excavation’s earthen site, perfectly preserved by a newly constructed four story exhibition hall, and step quietly through softly lit corridors to admire the metallurgy feats of the Baodun culture: hollow, three-legged bronze zuns used for heating wine, paper-thin golden masks adorning bronze heads with remarkable, bulging pupils, and tarnished statues of fierce eagles, flecks of amber cinnabar still glinting in their eyes.
How did the ancient city of Jinsha develop into one of the cultural centers of the ancient Shu Kingdom before its sudden disappearance in history? What was the meaning behind the Baodu culture’s particular focus on eyes? The mystery still shrouding this site might leave you asking more questions than you came with, but it offers an unparalleled glimpse into the history and questions surrounding China’s earliest civilizations.
Visit the Jinsha Archaeological Museum on our The Middle Kingdom tour.
Xi’an: Armies under the Earth
Dorli Photogrphy via flickr
Encircled by a gleaming moat of deadly mercury and guarded by hallways set with booby-traps, the legendary emperor Qinshihuang rests buried under the Earth. Standing resolutely beside his tomb, 8,000 soldiers loyally accompany him into eternity.
These are the world famous bingmayong, the terracotta warriors. Constructed by the sweat of 700,000 thousand laborers more than 2,200 years ago, the colorful paint once decorating their dull, clay-fired bodies has all but faded, but the unique face of every bingmayong still brings each to life: one boasts a wide, strong cheekbone with a painstakingly carved bun of black hair pulled tightly back from his forehead, while another sports a long, fine mustache framed by battle-set eyes, his arm still outstretched and hand tightly clenching the shaft of a now-vanished bronze spear.
Elsewhere in the site, excavation continues and the legions grow. New pits that encroach upon Qinshihuang’s yet unexplored tomb reveal other, astonishing figures: stone chariots, horses, musicians, and even acrobats captured in mid-flight, a startling contradiction against the surrounding sea of stern platoons. The bingmayong are not just for the history buff, they are for the eager traveler wanting to see one of the greatest wonders of the archaeological world. It’ll leave you speechless.
Visit Xi’an on our Xi’an: Warriors and Emperors tour.
Dunhuang: Caves of a Thousand Buddhas
Concealed behind a secret cave door decorated in Buddhist murals, one of the world’s greatest archaeological treasures lay hidden for centuries. That was until one lonesome monk discovered the door, happening upon 50,000 Buddhist manuscripts and art, their 1,500 years of history perfectly preserved by the Gobi Desert’s dry air.
This archaeological treasure trove is only dwarfed by the some other 800 Buddhist grottoes carved into the mile long Jiuquan sandstone bluff of which they were found in. The murals covering these caves extend over a surface forty times greater than the Sistine Chapel, a thin film of brilliant paint often only fragilely clinging to a kaleidoscopic mélange of images that relate Mahayana Sutras and victorious campaigns of Tang Dynasty generals.
Retrace Silk Road pilgrims, traders, and explorers’s journeys to view some of the caves firsthand as well as watch dazzling scenes of golden traced Buddhas and the lapis ribbons of apsaras dance across the sky in a high definition film projected on the newly built visitor center’s planetarium-like screen. As the earthly 20th Century American art historian Langdon Warner once said of Dunhuang, “There [is] nothing to do but gasp.”
It’s time to gasp with delight at these beautiful, richly historical sites in China. We’d recommend joing us on Marco Polo’s Silk Road, Xi’an Terracotta Soldiers Day Tour, or The Middle Kingdom tour to get firsthand experience of archaeology in action.