Sat in the lush countryside of the Wei River Valley, Xi’an - capital of the Shaanxi Province - is one of China’s most important towns, holding a significant standing in the country’s history. Formerly known as Chang’an - the Eternal Peace - from c1000BC up to the 10thC this was the seat of the most powerful imperial dynasties and the starting point of the Silk Road. Today Xi’an is a strong contender for being the friendliest destination in China, a modern, easygoing city showcasing its rich heritage within the confines of the surviving City Walls.
High on the list of tourist attractions is the breathtaking Terracotta Army found at the Tomb of Qin Shu Huang and it is not uncommon for travelers to arrive, visit the archaeological site and then leave the following day. However Xian has far more to offer and taking the museums, temples, pagodas and Muslim Quarter into consideration it becomes easy to understand why it is worth sticking around for 2 or 3 days. Furthermore, with many of the attractions situated within the City Walls it is a comfortable city to get around, generally hassle-free, on foot.
A consequence of Xian’s popularity is that it is well linked with the country’s other major cities. This is especially true for the train network with connections readily available for Chengdu, Jinan, Lanzhou, Pingyao and Shanghai, to name but a few. What is important to remember is that this a hotspot for organized tours so when heading to the major sights, like the Terracotta Army, it is advisable to go early in order to beat the inevitable afternoon crowds.
Terracotta Army - The number one reason for visiting Xi’an and one of China’s most popular and spectacular tourist attractions is the army of terracotta statuettes created to protect the tomb of Qin Shi Huang. Discovered by peasants as recently as 1974, the three crypts are one of the world’s finest archaeological finds and believed to have involved the hands of 700,000 workers. Each vault is different, with Vault 1 being the largest and home to 1,000 figurines averaging a height of 1.8m and lined up in battle formation. Vault 2, still being excavated, houses a larger variety of soldiers, including crossbowmen, charioteers and cavalry. Vault 3 is the smallest and felt to be the battle HQ as it houses 68 senior officers. Amazingly no two figurines are the same, a result of them all being handmade. Open daily from 8am to 6pm. Entrance fee CNY90 (Mar-Nov) & CNY65 (Dec-Feb). Audio guides are available for CNY20.
Xi’an City Sights - Xi’an is both a developing city and one that has retained an abundance of its original and historical sights. In fact, it is one of few Chinese places that still has its City Walls completely intact. Built in 1370, the 12m walls stretch for 14km and can be wandered around in 3-4 hours. The city’s most iconic sight is the Big Goose Pagoda, founded in 647, originally home to almost 2,000 rooms and associated with Buddhist monk Xuan Tang. Be sure to check out the Great Mosque, felt to be China’s largest and blending Chinese and Islamic influences. Two other important city buildings are the BellTowerand DrumTower. Dating to the 14thC the Bell Tower originally chimed at dawn and now hosts daily musical shows. One block over and also with roots to the 14thC, the DrumTowermarked the arrival of nightfall with a bang of the drum.
Forest of Stelea Museum - Housed in the Confucius Temple is a collection of +1,000 stone stelea, one of which is the earliest account of Christianity in China. Open daily from 8am to 7pm. Entrance fee CNY45.
Shaanxi History Museum - Commendable museum exhibiting prehistory and early dynastic artefacts, Han dynasty relics and ancient Sui and Tang objects. Open daily from 8.30am to 6pm (Dec-Feb) & 9am to 5pm (Mar-Nov. Entrance fee CNY50/35, depending on season.
Tang Paradise - Worth an afternoons visit is this cultural/theme park in the heart of the city which attempts to recreate the sights, sounds and culture of the Tang Dynasty. Popular with Chinese tourists there is plenty to see, including gardens, pavilions, palaces, cultural performances and a multimedia sound-light-water show. Open daily from 9am to 7pm. Entrance fee CNY90/68 (dependent on season).
Xi’an Nightlife - Nightly events in Xi’an range from sound and light shows to dinner-theatre performances to boisterous bars pumping out the latest Chinese house and pop music. In terms of bars Xi’an has been greatly gripped by karaoke fever with Real Love and Xialudi being the two most popular bars. A great experience can be had at the dinner and theatre shows of Tang Dynasty and Shaanxi Grand Opera House, which incorporate traditional song and dance accompanied by plates of delicious dumplings. Food lovers looking for a wide range of cheap snacks should head to the night markets in the Muslim quarter.