In ancient times, Xi’an was a world capital that rivaled Rome, Alexandria and Baghdad as the world’s largest and most cosmopolitan city. Located in the Province of Sha’anxi in central China, it stood at the eastern end of the Silk Road. Traders from all over the known world brought their customs, religions, technology and goods to the city, then known as Chang’an (meaning “Everlasting Peace”), making it a center of international culture and ideas.
It is also the birthplace of China as a unified country when Qin Shihuang defeated his rivals and thereby ended China’s Warring States Period and then he declared himself the first emperor of all China. Although his dynasty lasted a mere 14 years, the dynastic tradition Qin founded would stand for 2,000 years. Another 73 Chinese emperors would subsequently live and be buried around Xi’an, with more discoveries anticipated.
Qin built a sprawling mausoleum for himself which was still under construction when he died in 210 BCE. The tomb is guarded by the renowned 8,000 terracotta warriors, not to mention horses, chariots, weapons and other riches—and that is just what has been excavated so far.
Chinese officials and archeologists haven’t opened the Emperor’s actual mausoleum housing his body (located about a mile from the site of the warriors), because they that feel don’t yet have the experience and technology to safely explore and preserve its contents. The Chinese also have a cultural hesitation about disturbing the tombs of ancestors. Can you imagine Americans deciding to hold off for 27+ years to dig up an archeological site for any reason? There is some documentation and many legends that speak of spectacular treasures still to be found, including an underground palace with a lake of mercury and a ceiling studded with pearls to resemble stars.
The discovery of the clay warriors in 1974 was one of the most important finds of the 20th century. To say that archeologists, both inside and outside of China, were stunned by the find is an understatement. Among the site’s many surprises was the sophistication with which the army of life-size pottery soldiers was constructed--every warrior’s face is unique, including some with non-Chinese features indicating recruitment from regions outside China. This indicates that the society and government that created these works was far more technologically, socially, bureaucratically and artistically advanced than was previously imagined. Today, it is still an active archeological site as well as a museum called Emperor Qinshihuang’s Terracotta Army Museum. It ranks in the top three on the “must see” list for most tourists along with the Forbidden City and the Great Wall (which, incidentally, Emperor Qin also initiated).
Xi’an is also home of one of the world’s most complete and largest intact ancient city walls. The current walls were reconstructed based on the Ming Dynasty version from 1370.
The walls are 40 feet high and taper from 60 to 40 feet in thickness, making it impregnable during its time. Surrounded by a wide moat, the imposing walls form a rectangle 8.5 miles in circumference. You can walk the entire length of the ramparts and view the city both inside and outside the walls. Guard towers, now containing shops, refreshment stands and restrooms are located at regular intervals. Bicycles are available to rent.
Xi’an has a significant Muslim community composed mostly of the Hui minority who descended from Arab merchants and diplomats who traveled to Xi’an from Persia and Afghanistan during the seventh century along the Silk Road. Xi’an’s Great Mosque and the Muslim Quarter are among the city’s most notable sites. The Muslin Quarter has a lively and colorful market, especially at night, with intersecting lanes lined with stalls selling food, crafts and souvenirs.
An earlier version of the Mosque dates back to 732 (during the Tang Dynasty), although most of the present structure was built around 1392 (during the Ming Dynasty). It stands as one of the oldest, largest and best preserved mosques in China. A series of lovely courtyards, each with its own gate and pavilion, gives it the feel of a Buddhist temple. The courtyards offer a rich array of detailing and carvings in the walls, gates, pools, and fountains and culminate in a prayer hall on the western end, facing Mecca.
Not far from the quarter, the immense Xi’an Bell Tower stands in the intersection of West and North Streets which leads to each of the four old city gates. Built in 1384, the bell was rung to signal the start of the day. The nearby Drum Tower dates from the same period and houses a collection of drums. In ancient times, the sound of the drum announced the end of the business day when the gates of city would be shut.
Just inside the South Gate of the City Wall, the Stele Forest (also known as the Xi’an Beilin Museum) is located on the site of a former Confucian Temple. It houses 3,000 steles—carved stone tablets that served as authoritative records before the invention of printing. The collection includes classical Confucian teachings from the ninth century. Scholars seeking government positions took civil service exams testing their understanding of these texts. Other steles recorded epitaphs, poetry, religious texts and significant events including one from 781 which is the first known documentation of Christianity in China. There is also a rich collection of calligraphy, paintings, maps and sculptures.
Notable sites lying on the other side of the City Wall include Xian’s famed Big Wild Goose Pagoda (called the Dayan Pagoda). It was originally built for Xuanzang, a Buddhist monk and scholar who lived in the seventh century. In 629, he left Xi’an for India and other countries in search of the authentic Buddhist texts. Seventeen years later, he returned to Xi’an to devote himself to translating and studying these texts. To honor him, the emperor built the Pagoda in 652 to hold the sacred scriptures and statues Xuanzang bought back. The building became the centerpiece for a monastic complex. Climbing to the top of the Pagoda affords an excellent view of the city.
The area around the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, like many of the markets, main shopping streets and parks in Xi’an becomes even livelier in the evening when people congregate. In nice weather there are concerts, street performers and carnivals.
Smaller in scope, the Xi’an Museum focuses on the history of the city displaying artifacts, artworks and models. The Small Wild Goose Pagoda (Xiaoyan Pagado) is on the grounds of the Xi’an Museum.
Often called the highpoint of Chinese Civilization, the Tang Dynasty was noted for its poetry, scholarship and innovative civil service system. Xi’an was the Tang Dynasty’s capital from 618-904 and the center of power within the capital was the Daming Gong (“Bright and Shining Palace”). The Palace was a vast complex of royal buildings and government offices four times larger than the Forbidden City. Built mostly of wood, it was destroyed when the Dynasty fell. A millennium of neglect covered over the ruins until, in 2010, the City of Xi’an reclaimed the site and turned it into a vast historic park. Only the imposing Danfeng Gate, which served as the original entrance to the complex, has been rebuilt to illustrate the scale of the Palace. The Park has two museums, an IMAX theater, gardens, recreational facilities and a recreation of the royal Penglai Lake.
Besides the Terracotta Warriors, there are other trips worth taking outside the city including the Han Yangling Mausoluem, a museum built over an active archeological site with glass floors so you can see the excavation. It is the tomb of the Emperor Jingdi of the Han Dynasty. The exhibits are high-tech and less crowded than other tourist sites.
Most of the major American and European hotels chains have facilities in Xi’an along with hundreds of Chinese hotels at every class. Many tour operators are based here and the public tourist bureaus are excellent. The city has a good bus system and they just opened the city’s first subway. Like other Chinese cities, cabs are cheap--just make sure the cab has a regulation meter and that driver uses it.
Xi’an and Sha’anxi Province’s cuisine isn’t as well known as that of Sichuan or Beijing but it has some excellent dishes worth trying. True to its northern orientation, the local foods favor noodles over rice, especially long, wide ones. In general, it’s hearty fare; pork, lamb and mutton are the most common meats. Yang rou paomo is a mutton stew and probably the dish most associated with the city—there’s also a variation made with beef. Many of the tours include a “dumpling banquet” where guests can sample a variety of steamed dumplings. Beiyuanmen Street is known as the “Snack” Street of the Muslim Quarter, although snack doesn’t do it justice. It’s more of an opportunity to sample a variety dishes in one place.
Understanding China can take several lifetimes. But a visit to Xi’an will provide the best foundation for appreciating the country’s long history and rich culture.
If you’ve had enough of relics and want to see some natural scenery, head for the countryside to sites frequented more by domestic tourists than Westerners. Seventy miles east of Xi’an, is Hua Shan (Mount Huashan), one of China’s five sacred mountains of Daoism. Hua is Mandarin for flower and comes from the shape of the mountain’s five peaks. For thousands of years, Emperors made pilgrimages to its temples and shrines and for the spectacular views as well. There are a variety of paths to and between its peaks including some that are only for the intrepid and physically fit. There is, however, a cable car to the north peak.
For a different hiking experience, the Foping Nature Reserve is located high in the Qinling Mountains in one of China’s rare, unspoiled forests. Located 133 miles southwest of Xi’an, it’s 86,000 acres shelter a vast variety of flora and endangered animals including about 100 wild giant pandas. There are also leopards and several unusual animals such as the golden snubbed-nose monkeys, golden eagles, golden pheasants, ibis and takin. Note that it takes some hiking, patience and luck to see them. Both Hua Shan and the Foping Nature Reserve have basic hostels should you want to stay over.