Unearthing China’s History One Site at a Time: An Archaeological Adventure With Dr. Ye Wa

WildChina > Destinations > Xian > Unearthing China’s History One Site at a Time: An Archaeological Adventure With Dr. Ye Wa

For anyone curious about one of the world’s oldest civilizations and those who love learning about and experiencing history, we developed one of our new expert-led adventures through the living museum that is China just for you. Aptly titled History Unearthed: An Archaeological Journey Through China with Dr. Ye Wa, this antiquity-steeped odyssey will have the more creative among us imagining what Indiana Jones might feel like were he exploring Asia today. For the rest, you’ll enjoy a firsthand experience of how the Middle Kingdom’s most storied and significant historical locations exist today, receive expert insight into what life was like during each site’s heyday, and learn how the two are inextricably linked.

Introducing The Expert: Dr. Ye Wa

Dr. Ye Wa is an expert in archaeology, the co-director of the International Field School of Archaeology at Yangguanzhai in Shaanxi, China since 2010, and the perfect guide for your archaeological tour through the Middle Kingdom. After obtaining her bachelor’s degree in Xi’an, China, Dr.Ye Wa crossed the Pacific to continue her studies in the United States, where she earned a Master of Anthropology from the University of Oregon and a Ph.D. in Archaeology from UCLA. Specializing in the Neolithic Period and Tang Dynasty mortuary practices, she is the ideal guide to accompany you on your journey through the tombs, ancient dwellings, grottoes, and other timeworn treasures along the Silk Road. Currently, Dr. Ye Wa is focusing her efforts on understanding ethnoarchaeological approaches, Neolithic settlement patterns, and the relationship between patterns and specialized pottery production.

Dr. Ye Wa

Dr. Ye Wa | Image by WildChina

What You’ll Uncover: Journey Rundown

For the first three days, you will delve into the culturally and historically significant region in and around modern-day Xi’an. From the unflinching Terracotta Warriors to Yangguanzhai (one of the most consequential archaeological discoveries in China over the past decade), this ancient capital city is filled to the brim with millennia-old cultural traditions and an enthralling collection of mausoleums and settlements still being unearthed. Luckily for all the history buffs along for the adventure, you’ll get to do a deep dive into your fair share, enjoying a mix of curator-led tours and enlightening conversations. For more present-day delights, you’ll hear the call for sunset prayers as you wander through the Muslim Quarter on the way to the Grand Mosque, tasting local delicacies along the way. During your explorations, you’ll also have the privilege of sitting down for meals with the director of Yangguanzhai, the former chief archaeologist of the Terracotta Army, and another leading archaeologist in the area.

China's Terracotta Army

The Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an 

RELATED READING: Xi’an Tours: More Than Terracotta Warriors

Comfortably early on the fourth day, you will jump on a speeding bullet train to head to your next major destination: Tianshui. Crossing into Gansu Province, you’ll enter the heart of China’s Silk Road history. As the stretch of land connecting the illustrious trade route to the west, the far western province is a treasure trove littered with the remnants of civilizations past. Along with ivory and precious metals, Silk Road caravans brought Buddhism to China For the rest of your journey, you’ll be delving deep into the mysteries that have been hidden by the sands of time.

Before heading to your accommodations, however, you’ll first be whisked off to the mysterious, impressive, and unquestionably beautiful Maijishan Grottoes. Here, a stunning collection of over 7,000 Buddhist statues and murals have been boldly inscribed precariously high up on a hillside rockface resting just a few miles south of the ancient merchant route. To fully marvel at the craftsmanship that went into creating the relics, you’ll muster up your courage and mount a set of walkways that cling to the side of the cliffs. For your bravery, you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views of an astounding array of sculptures of every shape and size (some with the original pigment still intact) as well as of the valley below. And don’t fret – the pathways, though a bit intimidating, are newly built and your luggage will be watched over the entire time so you can enjoy the Buddhist wonders unencumbered. Then, after soaking up the history, you will have the evening to explore or relax at your leisure.

Maijishan Grottoes

The Maijishan Grottoes |  Image by kahumphrey via Flickr

On the following day, you and your fellow history-loving travel companions will set out by train for Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province. There, you’ll uncover the traces of cultures dating back more than 5,000 years at the Gansu Provincial Museum before sitting down to dinner with the curator. Before continuing on in your journey west, a day trip to gaze upon the Maitreya Buddha, which towers to almost 100 feet tall, will leave you feeling humbled by both time and the steadfast commitment of the bygone disciples.

Finally, you will voyage to the desert sanctuary of Dunhuang for the remainder of your archaeological adventure. Against the backdrop of unforgiving, rolling dunes, you can almost imagine the Silk Road caravans, overflowing with camels, textiles, spices, and gold as they plod across the sand. Like the traders of old, you’ll pass by Yangguan, a major landmark along the merchant route and one of the Great Wall’s most crucial western strongholds, and visit the ancient city of Suoyang, both of which now lie in ruins. At the Mogao Grottoes, you’ll enjoy behind-the-scenes access and stand in awe of what is considered the pinnacle of Buddhist art which is housed across a mind-boggling 492 grottoes, the fruits of a millennium of labor.

To deepen your understanding of Buddhism’s influence here and the area’s rich history, you’ll also meet with Neil Schmid (one of the leading authorities on medieval Buddhism’s visual culture), dine with Dunhuang scholars, sit down with the Getty Museum team to discuss Mogao conservation effort, and examine the Buddhist frescoes and statues of the Yulin Caves.  Lastly, before you wrap up your Silk Road journey, you’ll take to the sands, exploring the oasis of Crescent Moon Lake and following in the footsteps of Marco Polo at the rumbling, whistling Mingsha Sand Dunes.

Dunhuang Buddha

Mogao Grottoes

RELATED READING: 4 Must-Sees Along the Silk Road in China

Conversations With The Past: An Expert Discussion Series

Throughout your 10-day journey, you will be treated to three meals with Dr. Ye Wa and a variety of other experts you will meet along the way. These interactive, enlightening conversations will help to deepen your understanding of and give context for sites you encounter during your Silk Road explorations.

The Silk Road Before the Silk Trade: Communications Between the East and West Prior to the 4th Century A.D.

Join Dr. Ye Wa and the director of Yangguanzhai for lunch to discuss how the eastern and western worlds communicated prior to the Silk Road’s heyday and the role it played in establishing and nurturing relations and commerce between the two during its early days (relatively speaking, of course – the trade route was established in 130 B.C. and used until 1453 A.D.). This conversation will center around one of the largest Neolithic archaeological dig sites in China: Yangguanzhai. Covering an area of over 800,000 square meters, the site has been selected twice (2013 and 2017) as one of China’s top ten most significant archaeological discoveries. 

Crescent Moon Lake

Crescent Moon Lake in Dunhuang’s Mingsha Sand Dunes

Monks and Merchants: Buddhist Grottoes Along the Silk Road

Sit down for dinner with Dr. Ye Wa and the curator of the Gansu Provincial Museum to talk about how Buddhism found its way into China the same way ivory, gold, and silver did: with the merchants, traders, and caravans on the Great Silk Road. Its influence can be found in the Buddhist grottoes that are littered along the ancient route and the enduring art that lies within. 

Conservation of Silk Road Treasures

Dine with Dr. Ye Wa, local scholars from the Dunhuang Research Academy, and members of the Getty Museum team to discuss their joint conservation and sustainable tourism efforts to protect the splendor of the Mogao Grottoes and promote them as a destination for years to come.

So, if watching Indiana Jones ever gave you a serious case of archaeologist envy or if anthropology was your favorite class in school, this is definitely the WildChina adventure for you. Not only will you go home with a suitcase full of curios, a headful of unforgettable memories, and some new friends who are fellow history buffs, but you’ll get to learn about one of the world’s oldest and longest civilizations through the eyes of not just your renowned expert and trip guide, but also the experts you meet throughout your journey.

History Unearthed: An Archaeological Journey Through China with Dr. Ye Wa departs Sunday, May 10, 2020. If this you’re ready to uncover China’s mysteries and travel to the sites of some of the Middle Kingdom’s most illustrious histories on this archaeology small group tour, please reach out to learn more. We can’t wait to see you along the ancient Silk Road.