Xi’an (pronounced with the first ‘sh’ sound, formerly known as Chang’an) is not as popular for visits as Beijing and Shanghai but it definitely has to appear more on the radar of tourists – and not only because of the Terracotta army and because it was a starting point of the Silk Road.
Once an ancient capital city of China as it’s been the main site of seat for a dozen imperial dynasties, it’s the capital of Shaanxi Province now and a beautiful modern buzzing city. I really wish we stayed longer there – maybe we will return one day!
1.Meet Terracotta Army
Well, needless to say that the most visitors are attracted to Xi’an because of the Terracotta Army. The historical complex is located 40km from the city and is accessible by car or by bus (we had a guide who came with her car). Once you enter, there’s a big territory (more like a park) with different pits located in different parts of it, and there are some shops and cafes too. It’s a very impressive landmark although I left with a feeling that it’s calling for more research.
So, what’s the Terracotta army museum ? It’s a huge underground mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259–210 BC), the first emperor of unified China, who needed after-life protection from his successors (and he was right because there’s evidence that part of the army was intentionally destroyed soon after the emperor’s death by his rival), and this army was created to be buried around 210–209 BCE. It was discovered by chance by local farmers who dug a well in 1974.
Those are three pits with around 8000 statues that are open to the public now, and it’s believed that many more figures are still underground. Pit number one is the largest of them representing 11 corridors with statues on different stages of being reassembled, and the chariot house is located in the pit number 3 – it’s believed that the command centre for pits 1 and 2 was here.
The most amazing part of the story is that every figure (life-sized!) is unique and has its own features. The whole army is divided by military units as if it was a real army ready to fight: there are soldiers, archers, cavalry, musicians and of course the military elite such as high-ranked officers and imperial chariots. The tomb of the emperor itself is still unopened due to preservation reasons.
The rumour is that the palace can get really crowded starting from the entry point where you buy tickets but our licenced guide obtained tickets in 5 min and it was not very crowded inside the pits too.
2. Take your terracotta soldier home
There’s quite a big touristic business going around the Terracotta warriors – and no surprise there are factories open to public where you can watch how the replicas of different sizes are produced from moulds and clay . We were taken to one of them called Xi’an Daqun Terra-Cotta and Lacquer Furniture Art Factory. You could even make a 3D print of your face an order custom-made soldier with your face!
Apart from the Terracotta army-related produce there were all sorts of Chinese souvenirs for tourists, including furniture with mother of pearl, paintings, jewellery boxed and many other things. It obviously is not the must for a visit but in case you wanted to know about this option…
3. Eat at Muslim quarter
The Muslim Quarter is a road in Xi’an where – obviously – Muslim community and the Grand Mosque reside, and Beiyuanmen street is a super buzzing heavy smelling site with all sorts of street food imaginable. Actually Xi’an was the first city in China where Islam was introduced!
The food stalls on the sides of the main street are very vivid and bright, and I highly recommend that you come there hungry.
4.Explore Dar’cien temple
Daci’en Temple is an absolute must for everyone visiting Xi’an! It’s a Buddhist temple originating from 648 (modern version was opened in 1466) and built in memory of Emperor Li Zhi’s mother Zhangsun and known as one of three sutras translation sites during the rule of Tang dynasty (all three are located in Xi’an).
This temple is also linked to the name of Xuanzang, famous Chinese monk and translator who travelled to India and brought the Buddhist scripts with him back. The most famous landmark of it is the 60-metre high Big Wild Goose Pagoda dating back to 652, and it was rebuilt a few times since then.
This is one of the most famous pagodas in China and a symbol of Xi’an you will meet everywhere! And don’t miss beautiful jade carvings of Buddha Sakyamuni inside the temple too.
5.…and Jianfu Temple
Jianfu Temple is another famous 7th century temple of the Tang dynasty, built a bit later than Dar’cien temple, and also a site of sutra translation. Its 44-metre high pagoda was accordingly called The Small Goose Pagoda and was partially destroyed by the earthquake in 1556.
Another important feature of it is the Morning bell in the Bell tower that previously belonged to Shangge Temple, weighs 10 tons and dates back to the 12th century. To be honest, I enjoyed visiting this site even more: it’s less touristy, has a few pavilions, a nice garden with 1200 years old trees where to stroll along, a cute cafe and you can even hit the replica of the famous morning bell!
6. Try Biang Biang noodles
Biang biang noodles is the star of Shaanxi cuisine, one of the oldest and traditional cuisines of China. Biang biang noodles served with broth and meat is an absolute favourite of mine (I even found them in London!) – and ‘biang biang’ is onomatopoeic: it’s a sound dough makes when it is being prepared and beaten. Basically, you have only one noodle in your serving bowl, but it’s very long and thick. And also Biang Biang noodles are famous for another reason too. The character for it in Chinese is the most complex: it consists of 58 strokes!
Roujiamo is another famous dish of Shaanxi cuisine also called a chinese hamburger – it gained popularity all over the country! And finally, you can also try Paomo, a soup served with flatbread pieces inside.
7. Visit Xi’an Museum
Xi’an is a home to some of the best museums you can visit in China including Shaanxi Provincial Museum and Xianyang Museum not to mention the Terracotta Army, but I’d suggest you pop into the Xi’an Museum!
It’s a modern museum opened in 2007, and even its architecture has a symbolic meaning: three storey buildings represent the round sky and square earth as per Chinese tradition.
It has exhibits showcasing the historical and social life of the city from the periods of old dynasties of Xian starting from the 11th century including calligraphies, jade, scrolls, paintings and seals. The most famous of them probably are the rounded ladies statues – they really represent China of the ancient times!
8. Walk along the Xi’an City Wall
You surely know about the Great wall of China – but surprisingly it’s not as impressive as Xi’an Ancient City Wall, the 14th century military fortification of the foundling emperor of Ming Dynasty Hongwu (1328 – 1398) for the city’s protection.
What you see now is a rebuilt and restored version of the original wall: initially it was made of mud, quick lime and glutinous rice extract and covered with bricks later on. Now it’s still really impressive, about 12 metres high and about 12-14 metres wide, with watchtowers and the passages, and you can see different sections of it embroidered into the modern city of Xi’an. You can explore it by the walkways on the top or observe it from the side – and you can even rent a bike and explore it this way riding on the top of the wall!
9. Observe (or pop in) Drum and Bell Towers
There are two twin towers you shouldn’t miss in Xi’an: Drum Tower named after a giant drum inside and Bell Tower – because of the giant bell! Both were built in the 14th century as a military point and rebuilt later, and both have exhibition halls inside. And possibly the best way to see them after the dark falls – they’re illuminated magnificently.
10. Great Tang All Day Mall
And, concluding my blog on Xi’an on a more modern take. If you decide to have a stroll around the Daci’an temple with a view of the Bog Wild goose pagoda, make sure you visit Great Tang All Day Mall which is located nearby!
It’s a commercial street of over 2km long crossing a few squares. You can find all sorts of entertainment and also learn about the Tang dynasty heritage in Xi’an.
Xi’an a beautiful modern city where you can just wander around, try new food and have a time well-spent. If you are looking for a hike, Mount Huashan is said to be one of the best places for it in China! We haven’t tried it through.
Where to stay: Grand hotel Xi’an
We stayed in the glorious centrally located Grand hotel Xi’an which I loved very much – and you can see why. Originally called Xi’an People’s Hotel, it was built in the mid-20th century and underwent a full refurbishment in 2014. It had magnificent stylish rooms with marble-incrustation bathrooms, a lovely spa area and a huge breakfast hall with a wide variety of dishes available.
They also had an adjacent restaurant with delicious Chinese cuisine.
You might also enjoy my other blogs about the mainland China:
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