Xi’An (pronounced “Shee-Arn”) is the capital of Shaanxi Province in central north-western China. Most travellers (like us) go to Xi’An for the famous Terracotta Warriors, but we discovered there’s a lot more to see and do in Xi’an and it’s well worth spending a week or so taking it all in.
The inner part of the city is over 1000 years old and parts of Xi’An are possibly up to 3000 years old, so there’s a lot of history to absorb here. Once known as Chang’An (eternal city), Xi’An was home to the first emperor to rule the whole of China and the capital of the first great Chinese dynasty. It is said that 1000 years ago there were over 1,000,000 people living within the city walls of Chang’An.
In fact, the entire area around Xi’An is just chock full of ancient history. One of the world’s oldest human fossils, the Lantian Man, was discovered 50 km east of Xi’An and is said to be half a million years old. There’s also a neolithic village that’s been discovered on the edge of Xi’An that’s been dated at 6500 years old.
The Terracotta Warriors
The Terracotta Warriors are obviously the big attraction in Xi’An and you really do have to take a guided tour of this famous archeological site where thousands of life-sized clay warriors have been unearthed, complete with their horses and chariots. These armies were buried in 206 BC to protect the grave of the Qin emperor, the first emperor of China, and were only discovered by accident in 1974 when local peasants were digging a well.
What surprised us, even though we’d read the travel guide information, was the sheer scale of the excavated mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor. There are currently three pots being excavated and Pit 1, which is where you are taken on your tour, is just enormous! It’s the size of a 747 aircraft maintenance hangar and filled from end to end, side to side, with life-size clay figures. Some look like they were just put there yesterday, while others are being carefully restored and some are just lumps of people-shaped clay. But each one tells a story. Every figure is individually crafted to represent a particular soldier or officer.
The entire mausoleum covers an area of almost 5 acres and there are still new sites being discovered every year. Pit 1 alone has over 1000 clay soldiers at the front and almost 100 wooden chariots at the back. Just a short distance away, Pit 2 has another 1000 clay soldiers and another 100 or so chariots. Pit 3, also nearby, was set up as a command centre for the other two pits and has around 100 soldiers plus a commander’s war chariot and horses. Altogether it is said there are more than 7000 terracotta soldiers, horses and chariots in the mausoleum.
For the very best experience of the Terracotta Warriors, try to book a tour with Clarence, a tour guide who has literally written the book on this site. We were lucky enough to be able to book one of Clarence’s three Terracotta Warrior Apartments in Xi’An and that in itself was an amazing experience. Having Clarence talk us through the mausoleum was something else again! The full day tour costs about 1200 RMB for a couple and includes visits to a number of important local historical sites including a reconstructed temple and the art street.
Xi’An City Wall
For me, one of the other really amazing experiences of Xi’An was walking around the massive city wall of ancient Chang’An, looking inside at the beautifully restored old city buildings and streets, then looking outside at the modern industrial city of Xi’An that’s grown around the old city.
The Xi’An city wall is one of the very few fully intact defensive walls left in China. Unfortunately many walls like this were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but the Xi’An city wall is not only intact … it’s massive! You walk in through arched gates through outer walls about 10-12 metres thick. Inside, there are uniformed soldiers practising ancient defensive battle skills in the courtyard.
Then you climb 12 metres up the massive stone stairs to a wall that looks more like a wide city avenue and runs for almost 14 kilometres around the old city perimeter at a height of 12 metres. If you aren’t impressed by this, you’re a hard person to impress!
Of course 14 km is a long way to walk, so you can hire a bicycle and ride around the city wall or you can jump on board one of the regular golf buggy tourist carts that transport the unfit from one attraction to the next atop the wall.
I like to imagine what it might have been like to be a barbarian trying to attack the city of Chang’An 2000 years ago. There you are on your little Mongolian mountain pony with your amazing bow and arrow skills, looking up at the high stone walls with their thousands of battlements, each one filled by an armoured Ming soldier with a crossbow. I think I’d just wave and quietly leave. And that’s pretty much what did happen.
The wall is marked by four city gates, one facing each cardinal direction, and each with three gate towers. The south gate (Yongning or Eternal Peace) is the most photogenic and that’s where most of the ceremonies are held. We happened on a reconstruction of the bridge raising ceremony at the Yongning gate, but you had to have an invitation to get in. Disappointing!
Xi’An Drum Tower and Bell Tower
The Drum Tower and the Bell Tower are two of the biggest landmarks in Xi’An, but we found them a little disappointing compared to the rest of the city.
The Bell Tower sits smack in the middle of a roundabout in the city centre and has heavy traffic flowing around it most of the time. But there are tunnels that connect it to the four corners of the intersection outside the roundabout so it’s quite easy to get into, just hard to photograph. The Bell Tower is not nearly as old as the city wall, having been built in the 14th century (Tang Dynasty), but it is apparently one of the biggest and best bell towers in China.
The Drum Tower is not far away from the Bell Tower and has been ruined, in my opinion, but allowing a McDonald’s to be built smack in the front of it! Nevertheless, the Drum Tower is an impressive piece of Ming Dynasty architecture and there are great views of the city to be had when you climb to its higher levels. Each level has lots of ceremonial and warning drums, but the big drum right in the centre of the tower is what people come to see. Every day there’s a drum performance at the drum tower and that’s well worth seeing.
The Xi’An Muslim Quarter
Just behind the Drum Tower is the Muslim Quarter, which runs down Beiyuanmen Street for about half a kilometre, ending very conveniently for us just over the road from the Warrior Apartments where we stayed. As you might imagine, it became our favourite haunt in Xi’An.
The west of China has a large Muslim minority population, closely related to the people of Afghanistan and Turkmenistan (although the Chinese don’t readily admit this). These are the people who became rich trading along the Silk Road, but were too slow to leave when the trade dried up. In case you don’t recognise the Muslims by their lighter skin and blue eyes, the men wear white caps.
There are about 20,000 Muslims living in Xi’An and they have a strong local culture that’s mostly expressed for tourists through their unique food. The most famous Muslim food in Xi’An and the one that kept drawing us back to Beiyuanmen every evening is called Jiasan … roast meat (usually lamb) encased in a light pastry. You’ll see young men cooking it on the footpath all up and down the Muslim Quarter.
As in any Muslim area, you’ll also find a huge range of fruits and nuts on sale, along with delicious roast meat soups and breads. One of the famous sweet snacks is a fruit mince pie made from persimmons and fried in oil.
The Great Mosque of Xi’An
Of course where there are Muslims there are mosques – Xi’An has over 20 of them and the most famous is the Great Mosque on Huajue Lane north-west of the Drum Tower. What may surprise you (certainly surprised me) is that this mosque could be more than 1300 years old … and that’s significant given that Islam itself is only 1400 years old!
What this tells us is that the Arabic people travelling the Silk Road into Xi’An were among the very first to adopt the Muslim faith and brought it with them to China. And of course when a religion has been embedded in a country with a culture as strong as China’s for so long, it tends to take some of that on. The Great Mosque is an interesting and eclectic mixture of Arabic and Chinese influences. Its layout and decoration is typically Muslim, but its architecture is typically Chinese.
The Great Mosque is pretty grand, occupying almost 3 acres (12,000 square metres) of space with beautiful landscaped gardens and two very interesting steles with poetry from great Chinese calligraphers from the Ming Dynasty.
While you can visit the Great Mosque any time, it’s only open to tourists from 8:00 am to 7:30 pm and you will not be admitted to the Great Hall of the mosque during prayer times unless you’re a Muslim.
Temple of the Eight Immortals (Ba Xian An)
What really impressed me about the Temple of the Eight Immortals is that it looks so authentic and original, like it’s been there forever … and in a way I guess it has. The Temple of the Eight Immortals was and is one of the great emotional landmarks of Xi’An for local people and was once the home of the Dowager Empress Cixi and the Emperor Gangxu who had to do a runner from Beijing in 1900 when western armies attacked the Forbidden City.
The eight immortals are like saints from Chinese mythology and date from the Song and Tang Dynasties. If you’ve ever watch the Jackie Chan movie “Drunken Master”, you might recall there were eight drunken Kung Fu forms that are supposedly based on the eight immortals. The immortals also appear in the X-Men comics to defend China from the mutant Xorn. They are very popular and revered characters in Chinese mythology who are said to be able to lend their powers to tools able to be used by humans.
The original temple was built in the 10th century during the Song Dynasty but was brutally destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. About 15 years ago Xi’An locals decided to rebuild it on the original site (a momentous decision as it occupies about three city blocks) based on drawings made over a century ago and protected from Mao’s vandals. It’s a work of love and art and one that you really need to visit during your stay in Xi’An.
There are three parts to the temple. The first section has five halls that honour the Tao deity Lingguan. The second section had two halls and houses the statues of the eight immortals after whom the temple is named. The third section is where sacrifices are made to high ranking Taoist deities. There are also accommodation halls down the side for the monks and nuns who care for the temple.
Keep in mind that this is a practising temple and is used for worship every day.
The Small and Big Wild Goose Pagodas
I’m not big on pagodas and temples, so I was not all that impressed by the Small Wild Goose Pagoda and we didn’t get to see the Big Wild Goose Pagoda at all. But they do attract a lot of tourists and the parklands surrounding the pagodas are pretty spectacular.
The Small Goose Pagoda was built during the Tang Dynasty around 700 AD and there’s a museum in the grounds where you can see a lot of relics from this period. Just outside the grounds of the Small Goose Pagoda is, in my opinion, one of the best Peking Duck restaurants outside of Beijing. We dropped in there for dinner and the five course meal carved at our table, including beer, was less than US$25. Hen hao chi!
Make it happen!
Getting to Xi’An is a lot easier than you might think, with direct non-stop flights from more than 88 (how lucky) cities in China, Thailand, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, even Finland! The major airlines flying into Xi’An include Thai Air Asia (ex-Bangkok), China Eastern (from most major Chinese cities), Air Busan (from Busan, Korea), China Southern (most from eastern China cities), DragonAir (from Hong Kong), Finnair (from Helsinki) and TigerAir (from Singapore).
Finding accommodation anywhere in China can be a drama at the best of times as ownership changes, places open and close all the time and many places can’t communicate well in English. But here are some places that consistently get good reviews from travellers visiting Xi’An.
Xi’An Hometown Hostel is a 2-star hotel with a shared lounge located about 5 minutes from Xi’An West Railway Station. The hostel is run by a family who are very friendly, speak good English and try very hard to look after their guests. If you give them a call when you arrive in Xi’An they’ll even pick you up from the station or the airport. Be aware that staying here is more like staying in a private home with a family than staying in a hotel, so if you don’t like socialising this might not work well for you. There are male and female 6-bed dormitory rooms for backpackers for around USD$6-7 per night, but we prefer the King Room which has a shared bathroom and a large double bed for about USD$16 per night. Breakfast is available for USD$2 per person.
Crown Plaza Xi’An is a 5-star hotel at the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s located inside the Shaanxi Xinxi Tower, one of the tallest buildings in the city, so most of the rooms have extraordinary views of the city. It’s also in very easy walking distance of the Small Wild Goose Pagoda which boasts one of the best Peking Duck restaurants in Xi’An! The rooms are large, modern and very stylish, with dark wood furniture and walk-in wardrobes. There’s a restaurant and lounge bar on the top floor of the hotel that boasts probably the best views in Xi’An and has a great buffet dinner. Room rates start at around USD$200 per night but are often discounted to USD$180 or less.
Mingxing Boutique Hotel Xi’An is 4-star hotel, so in between the other two options. Its location near the intersection of East and North Ring Roads is not ideal but it is well connected to the major attraction of Xi’An by bus services. The rooms are large and comfortable with a private bathroom and all the facilities you need. Room rates start from around USD$40 per night for a basic room and go up to around USD$75 for an executive suite. Breakfast is available for an extra USD$8 per person.
If you haven’t seen something you like yet, try searching all hotels in Xi’An on TripAdvisor.