From the New World's point of view, 200 years back might seem ancient, but in China, I would guess 500 years is a good cut off point, though 1,000 might be more certain. In any case, here is my choice of nine ancient sites that you should consider looking at if you have the time and money: I have not included here the equally important sites covered in other articles in this series, such as Beijing's Forbidden City, its Summer Palace and Temple of Heaven, each of which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Note: dates for dynasties mentioned below: Tang 618-907; Song 960-1279; Ming 1368-1644; Qing (Ch'ing) 1644-1911.
Best known of any antiquities site is Xian, which was the capital of China from around 400 through 907, and the largest city in the world in the Tang Dynasty (712-755). Today, its fame lies largely in the Terracotta Warriors and half a dozen other treasures, as follows: A few miles east of Xian are the pits where a farmer in 1974 accidentally discovered the tomb which contains at least 8,000 life-sized statues of warriors, placed in the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang after his death in 210 BCE. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Other Xian highlights include the City Walls (originally Tang Dynasty, built over in the Ming Dynasty); the Great Goose Pagoda (652); the Forest of Stelae (earliest 745); the Great Mosque (742) and the Taoist Temple of the Eight Immortals (Song Dynasty). Although not ancient itself, the Shanxi History Museum is worth seeing, and may be one of the best in all China.
The highlight of the Silk Road, which really started in Xian, is the Dunhuang Caves complex, also known as the Mogao Caves, whose sculptures and other treasures date from 420. The excellent Frommer's China says, simply, "Here is the biggest, best-preserved, and most significant site of Buddhist statuary and frescoes in all of China." There would be more to see if American, British and French archeologists hadn't stolen thousands of manuscripts and silk paintings in the early years of the 20th century, including the Diamond Sutra which proved the Chinese invented the printing press at least six centuries before Gutenberg. Many of the remaining treasures are on display in a new Museum, opened in 2000. Yes, it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, too.
The Dragon Gate Grottoes are the second of three fabulous caves holding gorgeous Buddhist sculptures. On East and West Hills here, there are said to be some 2,300 caves and niches with more than 2,800 inscriptions and more than 100,000 Buddhist statues, the earliest dating back to 493. The masterpiece is the Ancestor Worshiping Temple, carved between 672 and 675. Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Yungang Caves are the third of these marvelous grouping of sculptures, and the earliest, dating back to 460. The Frommer's China guidebook says Cave 18 is the best of many, with a huge image of Sakyamuni as centerpiece. Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Down in southwestern China's Yunnan Province, Lijiang is home to the Naxi people. You go here to see their homes and shops, many of which date back to the Ming Dynasty and many of which resisted the 1996 earthquake which destroyed much of the city, especially its more modern buildings. With a nod to UNESCO, the town was rebuilt in the old style, using wood instead of concrete. The result is a World Heritage Site, but also hordes of tourists. Go before visitors and souvenir merchants ruin it completely.
This phenomenon dates back to the Warring States Period (453-221 BCE), under the leadership of the king of Qin, who became the first emperor of a unified China. It stretches for at least 6,200 miles (maybe much more) from the Yellow Sea westward. Several sections are easily accessible from Beijing, the closest being Juyongguan, about 34 miles northwest of the capital, while the most popular is Ming Tombs nearby, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Mountain Retreat & Eight Outer Temples here are a spectacular collection of Qing Dynasty (old spelling Ch'ing) buildings (1703-1794), where the Qing emperors were wont to spend their summers to escape the heat of Beijing. It's an easy overnight trip of 145 miles from the capital. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Despite the increasing influx of Han Chinese (the vast majority of ethnic Chinese) into Tibet, the mighty Potala Palace (1682) remains one of the nation's most impressive ancient sites. Said to contain 1,000 rooms (but who's counting?), the palace has been home to the Dalai Lamas ever since, though the current holder of the title has been in exile in India since 1959. Even more ancient and important to the faithful is the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, dating back to 647 and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as is the Potala itself.
A city for some 2,7000 years, Pingyao is crammed with buildings from the Ming and Qing dynasties. A special highlight is the Ming city wall, which you can ramble around on, the circuit taking about 75 minutes. Pingyao lies between Beijing and Xian and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of 22 in China.
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Read more about Beijing and China in Frommers.com's Summer Olympic Games 2008 package.