Known worldwide as the home of one of the more spectacular finds in archaeological history (The Terracotta Warriors, 10,000+ sculptures in military formation all distinct from each other), Xi’an is a significant centre within China that should not be missed by anyone who is serious about experiencing the human history of this great nation.
Existing for over 3,000 years, Xi’an has been the capital of 13 separate dynasties, chaired by 73 different emperors. For over 1,000 years, this city served as the centre of Chinese civilization, bequeathing it with a treasure trove of temples, museums, and other culturally important places of interest.
Additionally, as the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, this was the place that served as the first point of contact with Western traders, who brought with them exotic goods and vastly different world views, making this the place to be to indulge in cosmopolitan atmosphere in those days.
Today is no different, as the tourist trade and globalization have brought in travelers and businesspeople from around the world, and its historic position on the Silk Road means that the area has a sizable population of Muslims, adding to the potpourri of ethnicity in this part of the country.
In short, leaving this region off your itinerary will do injustice to your journey to China … if in doubt, come here. You won’t regret it.
The most famous aspect of Xi’an is the Terracotta Warriors, an army of men and horses that were carved out of local stone to honour the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, who was buried with these life-like works of art more than 2,000 years ago.
This massive and ongoing archeological worksite was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, and not only consists of an entire pseudo army, but a full-blown city of the dead, or necropolis, complete with shops, houses, offices, and horse stables. This attraction is actually located more 20 kilometres outside the city, accessible by buses 306 or 914 from the train station in town.
The most impressive pagoda in town is likely has one of the goofiest names of any historical structure you’ve come across, but it doesn’t make the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda any less impressive. Standing seven stories high, the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda was originally ten stories before an earthquake shaved three levels off the top in 1556. The structure leans a couple of degrees, but it is still deemed to be structurally sound; as such, great views of the surrounding cityscape can still be enjoyed from the top.
A mere 500 metres from this pagoda lies the Shaanxi Historic Museum, which is the perfect place to get up to speed on this area’s rich backstory. Housing artifacts from prehistoric times straight through to the Qing dynasty (before the revolution did away with imperial rule), this house of history tells the tale of a region many millennia old, through early settlements and kingdoms to the grand days of the empire before communism arrived on the scene. The best thing about this museum are the free tickets that are issued to the first 4,000 visitors, so get up early sleepy head, and check it out!
Finally, a jaw-dropping display of stone tablets can be viewed at the Forest of Steles, the largest and oldest collection of stone reliefs in China. They were used to display edicts in olden times or to commemorate noteworthy events (however great or tragic they may have been), making it well worth your attention.
The hit parade of historical monuments continues with the immense City Wall of Xi’an, the world’s largest intact city wall at 12 metres, 18 metres wide, and 13.7 kilometres in circumference. A popular activity in Xi’an involves renting a bicycle and riding atop the wall, which not only permits you an expedient way of taking in all the great views from the ramparts, but a chance to get exercise, which can be hard to come by when one is traveling.
As mentioned in the introduction, Xi’an’s location on the eastern end of the Silk Road has made it a cosmopolitan city over the ages, filled with people from across the world despite the restricted mobility in the world many hundreds of years ago. Many merchants came from lands where Islam was the chief religion, and to this day, a healthy chunk of this area’s residents count it as their faith.
As a direct result, Xi’an has a distinct Muslim Quarter, where many uniquely different foodstuffs can be found, such as Yang Rou Pao Mo, a simple but savoury mutton/beef stew that comes with a thick piece of chewy bread for dipping. Additionally, there are many stalls pedaling folk art, souvenirs, and fake name-brand products here … bring your bargaining “A” game though, as these merchants are true pros, schooled in this art handed down through countless generations.
Nearby is the Grand Mosque, which holds the distinction of being the first mosque ever built in China. Being located in the middle kingdom, this Islamic house of worship contains some undeniably Chinese design characteristics, again giving testament to the idea-mixing effect of this city during its heyday. Etiquette dictates that visitors cover up here in deference to the religious traditions here … don’t be That Guy/Girl!
Finally, the Bell Tower of Xi’an is revered in local folklore for stopping a plague of earthquakes that struck the area many hundreds of years ago. As the story goes, a dragon in the local river was suspected of causing the disturbances that led to the tremors, so the Bell Tower was built to suppress its spirit (as well as a several thousand foot long piece of chain to weight it down too!)
Since then, no more earthquakes have occurred, leading many to accept this legend as correct. For visitors, the brick and timber structure is impressive in its own right, with the bronze bell inside serving as the centrepiece.