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At Tang paradise in Xian, China, the Self-Cooled Pavillion is a favorite.
At Tang paradise in Xian, China, the Self-Cooled Pavillion is a favorite. (Philip Gambone for The Boston Globe.)
 CHINA: If you go: China

In new China, theme park rules old imperial capital

Email|Print| Text size + By Philip Gambone
Globe Correspondent / January 8, 2006

XIAN, China -- Not so long ago, tourism in China was all about foreign tourists. It used to be nearly impossible for ordinary Chinese to take anything like the kind of vacations in their own country that thousands of Western visitors enjoyed every year.

But things have changed. The average Chinese citizen now lives far better than he did 15 years ago and has more money to spend -- increasingly on luxuries like culture, tourism, and recreation. These days, European and US visitors are likely to be sightseeing, shopping, and dining next to scores of their newly middle-class Chinese counterparts.

''In the past, China's tourism valued 'waiguoren' [foreigners] more than anyone," says the manager of a Chinese travel company. ''Now that time is long gone. Ever since the conversion to the 'earn-money, spend-money' philosophy here, there are plenty of domestic money-spenders who can afford to have a grand time at a grand place."

On a recent visit to Xian (she-ahn), China's imperial capital for over 1,000 years and home of the famed terra-cotta warriors, my fellow travelers and I discovered one such ''grand place," the newly opened theme park called Tang Paradise. Near one of Xian's most famous ancient monuments, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, Tang Paradise combines the historical focus of a Sturbridge Village, the fantasyland appeal of a Disneyland, and the glitzy showmanship of a Las Vegas.

Dubbed a ''Garden of History," the park celebrates China's greatest and most sophisticated age, the 300-year-long Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), when Chinese culture reached its height. The developers, who invested more than $150 million in the project, have included all aspects of the era's splendor in an attempt both to instruct and entertain.

The setting, a landscaped 165-acre site surrounding a willow-lined lake, captures something of the look and feel of classical Chinese landscape painting. While no attempt was made to fabricate an entire Tang town, the impression one gets is of wandering through a variety of environs -- marketplaces, palace grounds, pavilions -- dipping into the sights, sounds, and tastes of a time long ago.

As my companions and I strolled the grounds, costumed acrobats, musicians, drummers, and stilt walkers entertained us. Artisans and calligraphers plied their trades. In Show Square, we caught one of the daily performances of Chinese opera. Nearby, energetic lion dancers writhed and gyrated to the raucous sounds of cymbals and gongs.

Tang Paradise opened last April to a litany of Texas-style claims: the biggest cultural theme park in northwest China, the grandest ''outdoor fragrance project" in the world in which incense burners that look like street lamps send wafts of sweet-smelling smoke into the air. The hype and word of mouth are attracting visitors, mostly Chinese, in droves.

The four-storied Purple Cloud Tower Block is the most imposing edifice in the complex. A reproduction of the 8th-century building where the emperor gave banquets and amused himself by watching the ''boisterous locals" on the streets below, the tower serves as the centerpiece of Tang Paradise. Inside are murals, artifacts, and models of Chang'an, the name of Xian during its heyday as the capital of the dynasty.

Tang Paradise is large enough for a day-long excursion, but families can plan shorter visits organized around one of three themes suggested in a brochure (available in English) that comes with the $6 admission.

The ''Romantic Trip" takes you on a stroll around Lotus Lake. On the way, you can stop at the Lu Yu Teahouse to watch a tea ceremony, visit the Apricot Garden and enjoy a meal in the banquet hall, cozy up in the Rosy Cloud Pavilion, and finish at the Silver Bridge Waterfall, where a camel-drawn cart will take you back to the West Gate.

The ''Culture Trip" follows a similar route but takes a detour through a man-made landscape called Tang Poem Valley, a grove planted with sculptures of famous poets of the Tang Dynasty, considered the greatest era in Chinese classical literature. Nearby, the Foreign Pub pays homage to the fact that drinking and poetry went hand in hand in ancient China.

If neither of these tours appeals, there is always the ''Lie Fallow Trip" that combines the most laid-back aspects of the other two, with lots of opportunities for eating, drinking, and relaxing. There are daily demonstrations of ''pretty dressing," as court ladies parade by in gorgeous silk gowns.

The park's grounds are impeccably tended, and, in this region of little rain and hot, dusty summers, the grass is remarkably lush. Souvenir stalls, restaurants, snack shops, and clean, Western-style restrooms are disbursed conveniently throughout the park.

With summer temperatures in Xian reaching the high 90s, water is a must when visiting Tang Paradise. Bottled water is available, the restaurants are air-conditioned, and so is the Phoenix Theater, where, for an additional $12, we escaped the afternoon heat to watch the musical review ''Dream Back to the Great Tang Dynasty."

In the evening, after a tasty, 10-course dinner, we headed to the lake for the ''water film," one of the most popular attractions at the park. Shown against a screen of water, the movie morphs into a sparkling, three-dimensional projection. Fireworks and colored pulses of light add to the surreal effect.

The plot revolved around a modern-day Aladdin, who, together with his genie sidekick, saves the world from the evil intentions of a suspiciously Western-looking pirate. In keeping with the park's overall Tang theme, Aladdin and the genie travel back in time to enlist the help of a lovely maiden at the emperor's court.

''It took my breath away!" a young Chinese teacher said later. ''I felt like a new-rich showing off my shamelessly huge, flat-screen TV to my richer guests."

The thousands of Chinese families oohing and ahhing in the bleachers and at beer tables at the edge of the lake seemed in agreement.

Contact Philip Gambone, a freelance writer in Boston, at phil_gambone@buacademy.org.

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