One of the main draws for tourists coming to China, is the contrasting landscapes. On one hand, you have one of the oldest civilizations with over 5,000 years of rich history. And on the other, you have a rapidly growing cityscape with the fastest rising economy on the planet. And the best example of these contrasting landscapes is seen clearly in Xi'an. Ancient temples and pagodas stand in the glow of bright, neon signs. The yin and the yang....if you will.
A visitor does not truly experience a city until they see the center of it. Sure, you can walk along side the Sydney Opera House, or do a mandatory pose in front of the Eiffel Tower, but you have to see the heart of a city, to fully appreciate it. And the heart of Xi'an is represented by the amazing Bell Tower (Zhong Lou). Built in 1384 by Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, this traditional Ming style building is the largest and best preserved of it's kind in China. Yuanzhang erected the Bell Tower, to dominate the flat countryside and to warn the city of impending attackers. Also, it was built to house a gigantic copper bell, named Jingyun. Weighing almost 4,000 pounds, this massive bell was hung inside the tower and rung every morning for 400 years. The Jingyun bell was taken down and is now residing at the Forest of Steale Museum (Bei Lin) near the South Gate. A new, smaller bronze bell was cast and is at the north-west corner of the tower, which can be rung for a fee (30 yuan buys you 10 rings, or you can pay 20 yuan for 6)
Xi'an was once one of the ancient world's largest metropolises, ranking next to the great cities of Athens, Cairo and Rome. So, it was no surprise that it grew at an alarming rate and as Xi'an grew, the center of the city had shifted. In 1582, the Bell Tower was relocated 1,000 metres east to where it stands today. Aside from the gray bricks used for the base, every beam and fixture from the tower was used in the reconstruction. Moving the tower, was no doubt a massive project to undertake, but records show that the tower was moved quickly and inexpensively; which proved to be quite a shock to historians. The relocation of the Bell Tower is, without question, an amazing achievement in China's expansive architectural history.
Covering an area of 1370 square meters, the Bell Tower is 36 meters (118 feet) high and sits atop a gray brick base that's nearly 36 meters (118 feet) long and 10 meters (30 feet) high. Even though the tower itself is 2 stories tall, it has 3 sets of flying eaves (traditional Chinese roofs with curled corners). Covered with layers of jade-green tiles, the eaves are designed to lessen the impact of rain on the structure. Along the outer walls of the tower, there are dozens of Ming and Qing style engravings, which tell popular Chinese folk tales. Inside the tower, the is colorful and intricate artwork on the walls, beams and ceilings. However, the highlight of the interior is a small stage near the back, where musicians and dancers perform shows several times a day. The performances are roughly fifteen minutes in length and show examples of ancient Chinese instruments such as: panpipes, flutes, bronze bells, xylophones and the guzheng (a famous harp-like instrument). Along with the feast for the ears, there is a feast for the eyes, in the form of a dance. One of the dances is the tong di wu from the Tang dynasty and is characterized by the dancer wearing a dress with very long sleeves, which they incorporate into their dances. A spiral staircase takes you to the second floor, which houses a collection of Chinese ceramics from several dynasties. A narrow balcony circles the outside walls, giving you an amazing 360 degree view of the hustle and bustle of downtown Xi'an.
With Xi'an's crazy traffic viciously circing the tower like sharks, the safe way to access Bell Tower is via the Bell Tower Annular Passage. This underground tunnel is designed to give people easy and safe access, not only to the Bell Tower, but to the entire downtown area.
As amazing and awe-inspiring at the Bell Tower is, it's only half of Xi'an's dynamic duo. The Drum Tower (Gou Lou) is located north-west of the Bell Tower and is seperated by the Bell Tower Square. The square is a sprawling space that has fountains, benches, colorful flower beds and gives great views of the Bell and Drum Towers. At dusk, it is very popular with people-watching, flying kites and gossiping. Walking around the square, and seeing all of downtown aglow with bright neon, is truly a surrel experience.
Emperor Hongwu of the Ming Dynasty headed construction of the Drum Tower in 1380. He saw the tower as a nessesity to the city, as drums held a vital role in ancient Chinese culture. Their primary function was to keep time and help in celebrations; however they were also used as alarms in times of peril. Like the bell in the Bell Tower was rung every morning, the drum in the Drum Tower would be beaten every night. A mix of Tang and Qing dynasty architecture, the Drum tower is 34 meters (112 feet) high, nearly 53 meters (172 feet) wide from east to west; and 38 meters (124 feet) from north to south. A pretty interesting fact about the construction of the Drum Tower, is that not a single nail is used throughout the whole building! Built into the base of the Drum Tower, facing north and south, is an archway 6 meters (20 feet) both in height and width. The north entrance to the archway faces outwards to the bustling Muslim District.
On the ground floor of the tower, along the east and west sides, there are 24 ancient drums which represent the Twenty-four Solar Terms. The Twenty-four Solar Terms is a special Chinese calendar of twenty four periods, used to predict the position of the sun and, in turn, guide crop production. Also on the eastern face, there are 2 large drums. One of these drums is currently the largest drum in China, after being placed here in 1996. The other is for tourists to enjoy and can be beaten for a fee. 20 yuan gets you 8 tries against this mammoth drum, or 10 yuan buys you 4. Inside the Drum Tower is the Drum Museum, which has an extensive collection of drums from several dynasties: some as big as a dinner table, others as small as a cell phone. Just like the Bell Tower, the Drum Tower has a small stage where skilled musicians weave their craft. From large drums to cymbols to xylophones, these musicians tell ancient stories of lore, like a hungry tiger trying to find something to eat, or a warrior praising the good harvest. And just like the Bell Tower, the Drum Tower performances occur several times a day and last roughly 15 minutes.
To fully appreciate the towers, you should spend at least 45 minutes to an hour at each to soak in the architecture, snap a few photos, watch a performance and wander around. The cost for each tower is 27 yuan, however, if you buy a ticket for both, you get a discount at 40 yuan. It really doesn't matter which tower to visit first, but a good idea is to visit the Bell Tower first, then head to the Drum Tower, and after that, you can quickly enter the Muslim Quarter and wander around there for the rest of the day. This little trip could easily fill up a day, if you take your time, and your curiosity.